Past Verb Tenses

keeping the past (tenses) in perspective

I am confused when it comes to the names of verb tenses. And it doesn’t help that some have more than one name. Am I going to turn this column into a grammatical nightmare? I hope not. I just want to clarify when to use which verb tense. Especially since a current trend exists that tries to eradicate all but the simple past from our writing. The logic is that ‘was’ and ‘had’ slows the action – which it can. Here’s an example (yes, I’m saddling you with more of my quickly made-up snips -– please excuse them):

He was standing on the dock, gazing out over the lake as a breeze was ruffling his skin. He was remembering a day, filled with sunshine and laughter, before the coming of The Dread.

And yes – I have read whole scenes written this way. Cleaning that snip up and making it feel more immediate and real is easy to figure out:

He stood on the dock, gazing out over the lake as a breeze ruffled his skin. He remembered a day, filled with sunshine and laughter, before the coming of The Dread.

But to eliminate all but simple past is just bad grammar. Bear with me.

Simple past tense:

She stood.
He ate breakfast.
She was grumpy.

Oh so easy! And this is the tense that one writes in when writing a story in ‘past tense.’ Hopefully.

The next tense is past progressive, or past continuous. It is used with was/were and the –ing form of the verb.

This is used to show an event or condition that happened in the past that wasn’t finished. It was continuing to happen:

He was eating breakfast as she walked into the room.

The third is past perfect. A completed action of the past. This is used with had:

He had eaten breakfast before she arrived.

So now you know the basics to combat the ‘only-simple-past’ trend. All the past verb tenses have their place. Just know when to use them.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-03-04

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