Lesson One: Verb Tenses

Lesson One: Verb Tenses

A 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!

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Posted 7 Years Ago

then and than too
in to as one word. (I am terrible for that)
their not thier
effect vs affect
back yard is one word
Hear and here (that drives me nuts)

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Posted 7 Years Ago

This is so helpful! Thank you for the tip on the present continuous tense. Not thinking, I often try to have my characters do two things simultaneously. Whoops.

I do have a question. When writing in the present tense, shoud I only ever use the past participle tense to explain something that happened in the past?


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Posted 7 Years Ago

Quick question that you might be able to answer:

In past tense, if your character is thinking (first person, without the "I thought"), which is correct?

a) Today I was going to walk to school. ("Today" is present, but the rest of the sentence is obviously past)
b) That day, I was going to walk to school. ("That day" sounds stupid)

*The biggest spelling error I constantly make is lose vs. loose.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

if we're covering those too

Their, there, they're

alot being two words.

its and it's

who and whom

You should do one for those people who use words to sound smart but use them wrong. (I read a story recently where the sentence was "the darkness sufficed, as evils often do, and returned behind the door"
He meant sufficed like bored. I come across tons on things like that, it drives me nuts

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Here is two more

to and too. Thought of this when I was replying to someone.

weather and whether

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Thanks for help on this and explaining dialogue. This is where I will screw up and switch tenses when I am writing. I will go to present tense after writing dialogue. The only way for me to fix that error is to pay close attention to how I begin after dialogue.

rhythm and rhyme. I know the difference between the two I just have trouble remembering how to spell them.

There, their seems to give people issues. I know the difference but many times mine is a typo or just typing too fast.

breath and breathe. I have misused this on several occasions.

sent and scent

since and sense

These are the ones I can't think of off the top of my head.
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The Perfectionist
The Perfectionist


Send me Poetry RRs at your own risk. They will be read but they will not be reviewed unless I actually have something to say. All stories, no matter how terrible or boring, will be reviewed. Review..