I’ve done two previous posts on this subject (references at end of this post), but I’m going to approach it again a little differently than before.
Why do verb tenses seem to confound writers so much? That’s a great question. Because verb tenses are one of those intuitive things that we pick up as we learn to speak our native language, we naturally develop a feel for past, present, and future events and usually have little difficulty in expressing those in our speech.
Granted, we do sometimes hear people say “I should have went” instead of “I should have gone,” but that’s a speech dialect or grammar issue rather than verb tense problem.
So why do we have difficulties with verb tenses when we write? For one, we speak, act, and talk in the present, but when we write, it’s usually in the past tense because we’re telling a story that already happened. This is called narrative past tense, and it’s the natural way many stories are told. Some authors do write in the present tense. Some readers find present tense a little weird and other readers totally hate it, but most of the time we do write in past tense.
Another complicating factor is that when our characters are speaking, they speak in present tense, just like we do in real life—unless they’re talking about something that they already did or that already happened, or they may speak in the future tense when telling about something they plan to do.
And this is what causes all the confusion. We don’t write the same way that we live: we live in the present, but we write in the past.
That statement just brought up an interesting thought. I’ve never seen a story written in future tense. I’m not saying no one has done it, just that I’ve never read one. Maybe I’ll explore that idea and experiment with it in a later part of this series.
I previously did two posts on verb tenses here. You might want to look at those later. I’ve put the links at the end of this article so you won’t get distracted. For now—especially if you have verb tense problems—follow along in this article as I try to lead you through the confusion.
To keep things simple in this first post, we’re going to assume that your story is written in normal narrative past tense, meaning you’re writing the story as if it already happened. Before we get to that, let’s define the various verb tenses in English and show when they’re used.
The word “tense” in the context of verb forms comes from the Latin root “tempus” meaning “time.” Our English words “temporary” and “temporal” come from that same root. The English word “tense” with the meaning of “tight” derives from the Latin “tensus,” the past participle of “tendere” meaning “to stretch.”
Now that we know the derivation and meaning of “tense” as referring to time, we can understand how this relates to verbs, which are words that describe actions, and we can refer to those actions as happening in the past, present, and future.
But it gets a little more complicated in English (and even more so in some other languages). We can refer not only to actions in the past, but to an action that happened in the past before another action. We can also refer to action that began in the past and completed as well as actions that began in the past and are still going on in the present or that began in the distant past and ended in the more recent past. We can express an action in the past that occurred while another event was going on. And we can do this with future tenses as well. We even have what are called conditional tenses.
Okay, I know that your head is spinning. Let’s give a few examples to clarify. These are the simple forms of the verb tenses.
PRESENT: He drives to work.
PAST: He drove to work yesterday.
FUTURE: He will drive to work tomorrow.
CONDITIONAL: He would drive to work if he owned a car.
Let’s add what’s called the “progressive” feel to these. By “progressive” we mean that the action is ongoing during the time period in question.
PRESENT PROGRESSIVE: He is driving to work.
PAST PROGRESSIVE: He was driving to work last week.
FUTURE PROGRESSIVE: He will be driving to work next week.
CONDITIONAL PROGRESSIVE: He would be driving to work if he had a driver’s license.
By combining the simple and progressive forms, we can express how events happen in a sequence.
He was driving to work when he saw the accident. (ongoing action in the past when another event happened.
He will be driving his wife’s car next week while his is being repaired. (ongoing action in the future while another event is ongoing in the present)
He will drive his wife’s car next week while his is being repaired. (simple future action takes place during ongoing present action).
We also have the “perfect” tenses. These are easier to illustrate than to explain. In this sense “perfect” refers to something completed (perfected) in the past but which may have present consequences or which may be continuing into the present. The perfect exists in all the tense forms: present perfect, past perfect (also called pluperfect), future perfect, conditional perfect.
He has written many novels in the past ten years. (action completed but ongoing—he is still writing)
He wrote many novels in the last ten years. (action completed, but he may or may not still be writing)
It has snowed a lot this winter. (the winter is not over)
It snowed a lot this past winter. (the winter is over)
We have visited New York City twice. (repeated actions, time period not specified)
I have finished my homework. (recently completed action)
I finished my homework two hours ago.
She has taught school. (completed action but time period unknown or unimportant)
When distrust has been your way of life, it is difficult to unlearn. (action in the past “has been” continues into and affects the present in “is difficult to unlearn.”)
This is possibly the one tense that confuses the most. Where the present perfect used “has” and “have,” the past perfect uses “had” (the past tense of “have” is “had”).
He had written only five novels before his untimely death at age forty. (an action completed prior to a past event. Both the writing and the death were in the past, but the novels were written prior to his death, so the past perfect expresses that)
It had snowed for ten days straight before the snow plows were able to clear the road to my house.
We had visited New York City twice before 9/11 happened.
I had finished my homework by the time my friend Tim arrived.
She had taught school for twenty years before she retired.
James and Marian will have been married for fifty years this July if nothing happens to either of them before then. (This one also includes a present tense.)
James and Marian would have been married for fifty years this year if she had not passed away last March. (This one also includes a past perfect tense.)
If your head was not spinning before, it likely is now. (Note the past progressive and present tense in that sentence.) That’s not my intent, though. I do not present these to confuse you further, but to make you more aware of verb tenses in general so you will understand them better. You don’t need to memorize their names, but you do need to understand what each one does so you will be able to determine whether you are using them correctly.
Here are some additional articles on the topic of present and past perfect.
(3) PRESENT PERFECT
(5) PAST PERFECT
(6) PAST PERFECT USE
NOTE: Astute readers of these last two articles (5 and 6) will see a contradiction between them in the opening lines. In the #5 the author says we don’t use the past perfect a lot in English, but in #6 she says the opposite.
Below are the two previous Write Well blog posts on verb tenses. I’ve repeated in this post a fair amount of what was in those in part because this subject does confuse many writers, and the more repetition of it, the better. In any case, I hope that reading the previous posts helps to reinforce what I have discussed in this one.
In the next post on this topic, I will provide passages that we’ll analyze to help you understand the correct and incorrect ways of using and mixing verb tenses. I hope that you will be able to look at your own writing in a new and more critical light and to improve it.