Lesson One: Verb TensesA Lesson by The Perfectionist
Past, Present, and Future
To be honest with you, this isn't the lesson I wanted to do first. I consider tense to be a most minor issue, as most people have a fairly decent handle on it. Having said that, I have just come off reviewing a story where the writer wrote an entire scene of a chapter in the wrong tense, and that prompted me to start here instead of what I had planned.
When you're writing, you will almost always be writing in one of two tenses: past or present. They are fairly easy to tell apart:
"John runs down the street after the ball"
"John ran down the street after the ball"
Anyone with a few years of school can tell you the difference between past and present tense. Most writing is written in the past, and the reason for this, near as I can figure, is that the easiest way to view writing is as telling a story, and you invariably tell stories AFTER they've happened. That is not to say, however, that there is anything wrong with using the present tense, only that it is uncommon.
There are two problems people run into regarding tense (at least, two that I know about. If you know more, comment!). The first one is the occasional wrong tense of a word used while writing. Because English is a stupidly overcomplicated language, there are a lot of exceptions that make clearly giving rules as to catching these very difficult. For those of you who have trouble, I offer the following advice.
1. Focus on your verbs; they are the only part of the sentence that is tense-sensitive
2. If you are wondering if a verb is in the right tense, try adding the word 'yesterday' after it and saying it aloud. If it sounds right, it's past. If not, you're either an idiot, or it's present or future. (EXCEPTION: if the word 'had' is before that verb, then passing this test means you're in the past participle tense, which is describing an event before an event.)
3. READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. I can't stress enough how easy tense issues are to catch when you hear them, rather than read them.
4. Pay attention to the general conventions. They aren't always true, but remembering that present tense verbs often end in 's' and past ones often end in 'd' can go a long way.
The second problem is not knowing how much freedom you have with tense when you write. In general, the answer is NONE. Once you pick one, you're stuck with it. There are a few exceptions to this, which I will detail here:
1. You switch into a character's thoughts
EXAMPLE: Story written in past tense (though you will notice the use of a past participle to explain what had happened before the story started)
They had been sitting alone in the club for a while now. The music was alright, but nothing special, and she just really wanted to go home. When Lincoln walked by and her friends whistled, however, her head turned,
Damn, she thought to herself, that boy is cute. I would not mind taking him home and...
Here, you will notice that the character's thoughts are in present tense, because she is actively engaged in the scene. I, as a narrator, am effectively quoting to the reader what she was thinking at that time. It was present for HER, so she uses present tense, but the story is in the past in general, so the narrator uses the past.
Actually, you know what, that's the ONLY example I can think of right now where it's okay. If you think of others, post 'em!
Finally: here are all of the tenses you might ever conceivably run into: Find the verbs!
Present Tense: (verb often ends in -s)
"John runs down the street and jumps over the fence"
Present Continuous Tense: (has -ing verbs, often with "is")
"John is running down the street" (since John cannot simultaneously run and jump, I cannot have the second part)
"John is jumping over the fence"
Past Tense: (verb often ends in -d)
"John ran down the street and jumped over the fence"
Past Participle Tense: (features 'had' with a verb)
"John had run down the street and had jumped over the fence" (Note that this sounds weird. I added in the second 'had' for clarity. In reality you'd omit it)
Future (often features "will" with verbs)
"John will run down the street and will leap over the fence" (As above, omit the second 'will')
My next lesson is on common spelling errors. Comment or message me with words you just can't seem to get right!
Added on January 25, 2011
Last Updated on January 25, 2011
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