It Was Tense: Past Progressive Verbs

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So she put her elbow on the bar from across the room?

Do you ever notice verb tenses that seem to conflict in the same sentence? Every now and then, I’ll run into sentences like these:

Walking into the room, she leaned one elbow on the bar.

Looking at him, she giggled.

The second one works. The first one doesn’t. Why? Let’s break it down:

  • Verbs that end in –ing are used to form the progressive tense. They indicate that the action being described is ongoing. “I am whistling a happy tune” is in the present progressive tense. It means I’m doing it right now. But I’m not beginning to whistle – I’m in the process of whistling – and I also haven’t yet quit whistling. Same with past progressive: “I was beginning to see the light” means I was in the process of understanding (or in the process of seeing an actual light – take your pick).
  • Verbs that end in –ed are handy for forming several verb tenses, but for now, let’s talk about the simple past tense. “I snorted” means I did it once and it’s over. I might snort again in the future (in fact, I probably will), but this particular snort is kaput.

Sometimes new writers are told to search for –ing verbs and root them out. That’s because a sentence like “I was beginning to see the light” can be stronger if you change it from past progressive tense to simple past tense: “I began to see the light.”

But past progressive tense is fine – and perfectly legitimate to use – if you have an ongoing action during which something else occurs. The trick is to make sure it’s possible to do both things at once.

Let’s look at my examples again. I’ve put them on a timeline to help us visualize better what’s going on. particple phrases ing-edparticple phrases ing-edIn the first sentence, our heroine is walking into the room. At some point in the proceedings, she leans an elbow on the bar. But wait a minute – she’s still moving! Is the bar in the doorway? Did she plant her elbow as she walked by the bar, and then use it as a pivot point to finish moving into the room? Or did her arm pop out of its socket and stay on the bar while the rest of her kept going? (Hey, it’s almost Halloween. It could happen.)

Unless she’s a zombie, I’d guess the answer is none of the above. What the writer probably meant to say was something along these lines: “She walked into the room and leaned an elbow on the bar.” Our heroine has completed two separate actions: She stopped moving into the room before she put her elbow on the bar. Sounds more plausible, doesn’t it?

Now take a look at the second sentence, wherein our heroine is in the process of looking at a guy, and at some point while she’s looking, she giggles. That could work, couldn’t it? She can certainly look and giggle at the same time, and she can keep on looking at him after she has stopped giggling. So this sentence is fine.

I’d suggest you add this to your list of things to look for when you’re doing an editing pass on your manuscript. When you run into an –ing word, don’t just throw it out; look at the sentence. See if it would work to change it to simple past tense. Or if it’s paired with another past tense verb, think about whether it’s possible to do both actions at once.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “It Was Tense: Past Progressive Verbs”

  1. Malcolm read Lynne’s post, was reading it, and will continue reading it until he leans an elbow on a bar and/or giggles and–perhaps–continues giggling until the cows come home (assuming they know the way).

  2. Good job, Lynne. I run into this often in my reading and it drives me bananas. Another case where the author knows exactly what they’re trying to describe, but they just use a funny (not intentionally) way of doing it. Good reminder.

  3. I’m sorry, but you’re way off here in your premise. This is a phantom rule–it does not exist. Let me explain.

    >Walking into the room, she leaned one elbow on the bar.
    >Looking at him, she giggled.
    >The second one works. The first one doesn’t. Why?

    They both work fine, and here’s why. The structure you’re dealing with is composed of an independent clause, modified by what’s called a participial phrase. Looking and walking are examples of participles–specifically, the present participle. They’re so called because they’re used to form the present progressive tense, as you note, but the participles themselves have no tense–they’re not complete verbs, so they couldn’t have a tense. As you also note, they’re also used to form the past progressive tense–what they suggest is progressiveness, not presentness.

    There’s nothing whatsoever technically wrong in a sentence like “Tying her shoe, Josie heads out of the house.” The fact that the two events cannot logically be simultaneous, while true as far as it goes, is not a problem.

    In fact, present participial phrases are what linguist Bernd Kortmann, in his work “Free Adjuncts and Absolutes in English: Problems of control and interpretation” describes as “semantically indeterminate”—that is, they can mean different things, in terms of the relationship between the phrase and what it modifies, depending on context. (The whole work is pretty much dedicated to this exact type of structure, so you may want to check it out.)

    As Kortmann explains, such constructions are “unmarked for tense and mood. Constructions without a perfect-participial head also neutralize the aspectual distinction ‘imperfective/perfective (progressive/non-progressive)’” (p. 1). That last bit means, in linguistics jargon, that present participial phrases not only don’t tell us tense, they don’t tell us whether an action was completed (unless the perfect participial, e.g., “having done something,” is used.

    Moreover, “whether the relationship holding between these constructions and the matrix clause [that is, the clause modified by the participial phrase] is a temporal, causal, conditional, etc., or an adverbial one at all, needs to be determined for each individual instance” (1). So not only is simultaneity not required, but “temporal” in general is only one type of relationship these constructions can indicate.

    One such relationship is, indeed, simultaneity, but there are numerous others, including:

    *Anteriority (“Reaching into the drawer, he took out a knife”);

    *Posteriority (“She left her apartment, slamming the door”)–Note that the placement of the participial phrase is what tends to distinguish anteriority from posteriority; compare “He sat down, crossing his legs” with “Crossing his legs, he sat down”–the latter is illogical because no logical relationship between the phrase and the matrix clause, temporal or otherwise, comes to mind;

    *Conditionality (this one’s a bit trickier to understand, but for example, in a sentence like, “He was a terrible husband, putting it mildly,” the idea of the modifier is something like “if we are to put it mildly”);

    *Instrumentality (“Using the knife, he cut his meat”)

    *Manner (“The little girl walked to school, skipping all the way there”)

    *Accompanying circumstance (“She stood in the hallway, wearing a red dress”—this is superficially similar to simultaneity, but not the same, as you wouldn’t say “she stood there at the same time as she was wearing a red dress”—it wouldn’t be logical);

    *Concessivity (meaning something like “although,” as in “Knowing the consequences, she broke the rule anyway”);

    *Causation (“Knowing the consequences for jaywalking, he crossed with the light”);

    *Result (“He ran very fast in the footrace, coming in second”);

    *Purpose (“He slowed down, avoiding a person he didn’t want to run into”).

    The examples above are my own, but all the semantic categories are from the Kortmann text. Any errors are my own, not Kortmann’s, but in general, none of these types of constructions are technically “incorrect” in any way, according to either traditional standards or contemporary ones (unlike, say, misplaced modifiers, which are problematic from a grammarian’s standpoint even if a linguist might simply observe that they exist and are widely used).

    What I’ve taken to calling the “concurrency requirement” is a phantom rule. Unlike a “zombie rule” (like “don’t split infinitives” or “don’t begin a sentence with ‘and'”), a phantom rule is something that has only been made up in the last few years–I can’t find any reference to such a rule that’s older than a couple of years, nor is there any mention of such a requirement in any grammar text I own or have seen, new or old. In frustration, I asked one of my professional organizations’ email lists about it last year, and not one editor there was aware of such a rule (though one was kind enough to point me to the Kortmann text).

    The requirement for concurrency with present participial phrases is as reliable as if I said that there was a Jewish dietary rule along the lines of “don’t eat potatoes on the same day as you have spoken the word ‘tomato,'” which is to say, not at all. It has no basis in law or custom, so to speak, and it’s simply an unnecessary burden to authors, who already struggle to follow the many rules of grammar and style that really do exist. I’d love to know what authoritative sources, if any, this article was based on, as I’m trying to trace the rule back to its origin in hopes of stamping it out before it can spread further.

    1. Eliza, are you sure he was talking about English? I know Slavic languages use perfective and imperfective forms of their verbs, but I’ve seen next to no mention of it in relation to English. (And in Czech, at least, imperfective verb forms do indicate that the action is ongoing, while perfective verb forms indicate the action is done.)

      1. Yes, the book is a book about English linguistics, and he draws on thousands of examples from English texts of all sorts. Slavic languages (I studied Russian, so I know a bit about this) have two distinct verbs, one perfective, one imperfective, for each of what would be one English verb (at least, Russian does). In English, perfective/imperfective is done with “have.” “I have seen” is present progressive (present tense, progressive aspect); “I had seen” is past perfect (sometimes called pluperfect). “Having done the dishes” is a present perfective participial phrase, and so on.

        1. Czech, which I have studied, also has paired perfective/imperfective verbs. I suspect all the Slavic languages do. And Spanish has imperfect and preterite forms in the past tense.

          I just think you’re getting pretty far afield here. If a sentence sounds dumb to a casual reader, you’re liable to lose them. Better to rewrite than risk it — no matter how correct your linguistics may be.

          1. Thing is, I don’t think it does sound dumb to a casual reader. If it did, there would be actual conventions about it that dated back more than a few years and had non-Internet sources. I think it’s one of these things that sounds persuasive enough to insecure authors who don’t know much about linguistics or formal grammar that these types of arguments occasionally get made and go unchallenged–much like Stephen King’s “war on adverbs” has certain newbie writers actually thinking adverbs are grammatically incorrect!

            And I don’t think it’s getting far afield, in discussing a supposed rule of grammar, to say the supposed rule doesn’t exist and never has. What could possibly be less afield? The reason I chose a linguistics text is that, since no authority figure, grammar-wise, has ever heard of this rule, no time or space has been spent discussing it, so it simply doesn’t exist as a topic of discussion in grammar texts. To date, no one has been able to provide me with an authoritative source for this rule.

          2. Speaking as a reader, I would interpret the sentences the way Lynne described, as nonsensical. The Stephen King adverb comparison is a good one. I’m sure we could find adverbs in a Stephen King book. I think his caution is to use them sparingly (oops, don’t know how that snuck in there) because overuse weakens the writing, at least in his opinion. Even if the sentences Lynne used are grammatically correct, if they make most (many?) readers think of characters doing physical impossibilities, it makes sense not to use them. Maybe a rule of thumb rather than a rule?

            Now can we talk about why irregardless really is a word? 🙂

  4. This conversation reminds me why we need editors. We’re so attuned to moving the novel forward that we don’t notice the illogical of a sentence until somebody else points it out. Better to have that happen before the thing is published. The “elbow on the bar” sentence would normally set off a warning bell inside my head if I wrote it because sense rather than tense (for me) is the culprit here.


    1. Thanks, Malcolm. That was my ultimate point: the sentence sounds odd, and could very well make the reader pause — which is not typically a thing that an author of fiction wants to encourage.

    2. Malcolm, I think you bring up a good point. Sometimes we need to write for the sound and the sense of it, even if it might be incorrect on some academic level. If we’re writing fiction, we don’t want it sounding like a textbook. (This is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” areas.)

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