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A Tense Lesson

 
 
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Old 12-03-2011, 11:15 AM
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Default A Tense Lesson


Originally written by Andrew Braun

Lots of things can be tense. Personally, my nerves tend to be stretched to the limit when the fate of the world depends on whether or not I can jury-rig a missile-interference system to avert nuclear war. Some people just get edgy when their coffee isn’t right in the morning.

Know what else is tense? The English language. You think you can get stressed sometimes—the English language is a dozen times more tense than you are. That’s right. It’s got twelve tenses. We’re all familiar with past, present, and future tenses, but there’s a whole gamut of other tenses under those main headings. They are: continuous, simple, perfect, and perfect continuous. In the following lessons, you’ll learn the usage of each one. Even if you’re not writing a time-travel novel, it pays to be familiar with tenses. If you can play with tenses well, it’ll add whole dimensions to your writing.

Let’s start with the past. I don’t like to dwell on the past. No regrets. Carpe diem. Nevertheless, a lot of stories are written in past tense, so we’ll have to make a painful journey into history.

Past Tense
Past Continuous

This is standard. It’s how you write your novel in the past while maintaining that events are actually happening in the moment. The operative verbs are “was” and “were” for this tense. The first usage is writing about actions in progress; the second usage is for interrupted actions in progress. So:

“I was remembering that fateful day when my friend Mikey was horrifically mauled by a gecko.” (The action in progress: remembering)

I was remembering that fateful day when my friend Mikey was horrifically mauled by a gecko, when a gecko came up and mauled me.” (Remembering, then being interrupted by the gecko)

Pretty simple. But this tense also convey certain moods. You’ll have heard people talking this way when they’re either timorous or irritated. An odd combination to be sure, but they work. Observe:

“ ‘I was hoping you might not maul me,’ I said to the gecko.
“ ‘And I was hoping you would release your prisoners, dummy.’”

Past Simple

You would think that past simple would be what you use most often, right? Then you learned that you’d been doing past continuous all this time and you were happy, perhaps thinking, “I am inherently smart! I have not been using simple tense because I am above it all!”

Sorry to break it to you, but you’ve also been using past simple quite a bit. Past simple is reserved for things that happened at a certain time in the past; things in the past that are now closed cases; and circumstances in the past. The operative verb here is the “ed” ending to most verbs, or in irregular cases, the equivalent irregular ending.

The first use you can think of as history. Something that happened at a certain time in the past:

“Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings.” or “Nikola Tesla invented the Tesla Coil.”

These things occurred at a specific time in the past, so you use past simple to tell it. Closely related is the use reserved for now-closed events:

“He quit his gecko-taming job.”

Nearly the same is using simple past to show past circumstances or situations. This is commonly found in exposition and backstory in fiction:

“I cared for a pet gecko at home before the tragic incident.”

Past Perfect

This is where things begin to get interesting. Newer writers, and some older ones, often get confused when using this tense. Why? Because, putting it simply, you are now writing past tense within past tense. You write an action in the past, and then write an action that took place before that action in the past. This action is always a completed action, because, well, it’s in the past. It’s impossible to write an action in progress in past perfect. The operative verb is “had”. Standard use:

“I hadn’t managed to talk the gecko out of mauling me, but at least he was listening.
“He asked what I had done with his comrade.”

Another usage is the hypothetical one. Not hypothetical as in, “You could hypothetically use it this way,” but as in using past perfect to convey a hypothetical situation, the “hypothetical past.”

“I could have let him go after I owned him a few months, but by then it was too late. I wish I had let him go.”

Past Perfect Continuous

Last in the past tense set! Also called “past perfect progressive”, this tense is a rather fiddly one. It’s a little hard to differentiate between this and plain past perfect, but it does just about what the name implies: continues the past perfect tense. The main usage is to define an action in the past that continues up to a certain time in the past. The verb construction here is fairly easy to pick out, though. It is always “had + been + ‘ing’ verb”. For example, to define an action in the past continuing up to a certain time in the past:

“I had beenconfining geckos for most of my life.”

Another common usage is in reported speech. This is where you convey something that someone said, but without using dialogue. Reported speech will often contain a past perfect continuous tense.

“The gecko said he had been watching me.”

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