Verb tense. No matter how many writing courses we take, or how much we think we understand it, when the time comes to put pen to paper, we can still find ourselves unsure of which to deploy in certain circumstances. Sometimes, we are sure, and we don't realise we're wrong until our manuscript comes back from an editor with red pen all over it!
This week's Writer's Connect, issue 90, encouraged you to identify the primary tense in your work early so you can brush up on it before your word count gets too high. Very few stories, however, are told exclusively in a single tense. Things like flashbacks and reflections can jettison you out of your comfort zone in an instant, so it's important to have a basic understanding of the full spectrum of verb tenses.
And that, friends, is today's lesson!
This post brought to you by guest blogger Tyrone Couch.
How Many Tenses Are There, Anyway?
The simple answer is three: past, present, and future.
The less simple answer is twelve. Yes, twelve. But don't panic just yet! Rather than an additional nine tenses on top of the three you may already be struggling with, what we're dealing with is actually four grammatical 'aspects' that apply to each of the three tenses.
While that may still sound daunting, it's actually the key to finally understanding verb tenses and getting on top of them once and for all.
The four aspects are as follows:
As the name suggests, the 'simple' aspect essentially refers to the past, present, and future tenses as you know them, in their most basic form:
Past: I saw her.
Present: I see her.
Future: I will see her.
In all likelihood, the majority of your work will be written with the simple aspect. It's both the most intuitive aspect, and the least likely to cause you any trouble.
As the name most definitely does not suggest, the 'perfect' aspect is where things start getting hairy. Essentially, it's used when referencing an action that takes place at any time other than right now. In other words, that action can be considered complete (or otherwise set in stone).
Past: I had seen her somewhere before.
Present: I have seen her at her best, and at her worst.
Future: I will have seen her perform three times after next week's show.
Of the three, the past perfect tense (sometimes called pluperfect) is the most likely to give you a headache. Slipping in and out of past perfect is a very common issue when recounting a past event in detail, so keep an eye out for it!
The continuous aspect is used for—believe it or not—continuous actions, or actions that aren't instantaneous / take time to complete.
Past: I was seeing her everywhere I looked.
Present: I am seeing her right before my very eyes!
Future: I will be seeing her again at the party tomorrow.
Note that stative verbs (e.g., want and need) aren't very compatible with the continuous tense. While 'I am wanting you' is amusing, it's probably not going to have the same effect as 'I want you'!
While a combination of the 'perfect' and 'continuous' aspects might seem intimidating, it's not as scary as it sounds. If you've spent a little time getting to know the aspects individually, you can probably even guess what they look like together:
Past: I had been seeing her all over town.
Present: I have been seeing her more and more lately.
Future: I will have been seeing her for five years in January.
As you can see, it functions in exactly the same way as the perfect aspect, while also describing a continuous action.
Breaking It Down
The above might feel like a lot to take in, but when you simplify it a bit, it becomes easier to understand—and more importantly, use to your advantage.
The past, present, and future are your anchors. Determining whether an action has already happened, is happening now, or hasn't happened yet is fairly intuitive: if you're asking yourself what tense you should be writing in, you can probably rule out simple tense. After that, all that remains is a process of elimination.
Can your action be considered complete?
> If not, use continuous tense.
If your action is complete, is it also continuous?
> If not, use perfect tense.
> If so, use perfect continuous.
Because English is ... well, English, there are going to be exceptions to this rule. That said, it should see you through the majority of your tense troubles.
If you'd like to learn more, join us again next week for a breakdown of all possible combinations of tenses and aspects!
The thing about learning is that we all do it differently, and the right words for one person might be of no help at all to another. While great pains are taken to make sure these posts are accessible for all, there's no substitute for one on one feedback in real time.
If that sounds like something that might interest you, consider taking a look at one of our book coaching & writing programs.
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Word of the Day
Describing something as grievous makes it very serious indeed! It's a formal way of saying that the subject is extremely severe, usually to such a degree that it causes grief, sadness, or hardship. It is most often used to describe injury, but it can also be used to convey the seriousness of a situation.
The village elder's passing was a grievous loss for the community.
"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
~ Thomas Mann
A selection of current writing competitions YOU can enter!
The Moth Nature Writing Prize 2023
Format: Multiple categories
Theme: The natural world
Word Count: max. 3,000
Entry Fee: €15
Prize: €1,000 and a week in France
A NOTE ON WRITING COMPETITIONS
Look over the fine print to make sure that your submission qualifies and you're happy with the terms of engagement.
The Australian Society of Authors has a highly informative post on their website called 'What to look for in a writing competition's T&Cs' .
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