Too many beginning writers have only a primitive grasp of verb tenses. Although some have a vague idea of what auxiliary verbs can do, many seem to be stuck with three basic tenses -- a kind of generic past, present and future -- that they use for everything regardless of the shades of meaning they are trying to convey.
Quite frankly, even though people can and do speak that way and still make themselves understood, it just doesn't work for good writing. This is one of those language mechanics that as an author you must master, because the use of verb tenses can make or break your narrative. The difference between, say, the simple past tense and the past perfect can completely change the meaning of a sentence -- and the entire direction of your plot, if you are careless.
Depending on whom you consult, English has at a minimum some thirty-two different verb tenses, each one denoting a different -- often subtly so -- relationship between the action taken, when it happened and for how long.
Now don't panic. You don't need to know all thirty-two-plus verb tenses. For almost all purposes, you really only need a basic set of nine tenses:
- Simple Present: They talk
- Present Perfect: They have talked
- Present Progressive: They are talking
- Simple Past: They talked
- Past Perfect: They had talked
- Past Progressive: They were talking
- Future: They will talk
- Future Perfect: They will have talked
- Future Progressive: They will be talking
Here's a quick summary of their usage. You'll note that there are a few mentions of the "past participle" and "present participle" below. That's just formal grammar-speak. The past participle is the form of the verb that ends with "-ed" ("walked", "interrogated", etc.) or an irregular equivalent ("ran", "flew", "ate/eaten", etc.). The present participle is the "-ing" form ("walking", "eating", "skateboarding").
- Simple Present: Describes an action or situation which is happening right now ("I exist"). It is also used for unchanging conditions ("Space is big"), recurring or cyclic actions ("Every four years we elect a president") or to express a widespread truth ("'Au' is the chemical symbol for gold").
- Present Perfect: Describes an action which began in the past but which is either still going on ("It has rained since this morning"), or has an effect which itself is still happening even if the action which caused it has stopped ("The ground has been wet ever since it rained last night."). It's formed with a Simple Present tense form of "to have" plus the past participle of the verb.
- Present Progressive: Describes an ongoing action that is happening at the same time the statement is written or spoken ("The chef is making me a pizza"). It's formed by using "am", "is" or "are" with the verb's present participle (the form ending in "-ing"). A lot of people use this tense thinking it's the same as the Simple Present; it's not, although the distinction can sometimes be subtle.
- Simple Past: Describes an action that began and ended in the past, and has no effects that continue ("I ate lunch").
- Past Perfect: Describes a completed action in the past, which took place before another completed action in the past ("I had eaten a big snack before I ate lunch, so I wasn't that hungry"). Similar to the Present Perfect, it's formed with the Simple Past tense of "to have" plus the verb's past participle.
- Past Progressive: Describes a past action which was happening when another action occurred ("I was eating my lunch when I had to answer my cell phone"). It's formed by using "was" or "were" with the present participle.
- Future: Describes an action which will take place in the future, but hasn't started yet ("I will watch TV tonight").
- Future Perfect: Describes an action which will have been been completed by a specific point in the future ("By the time I die, I will have watched thousands of hours of TV"). And yes, as you've probably guessed, you form it with a Future tense form of "to have" with the verb's past participle.
- Future Progressive: Describes an ongoing or continuous action that will take place in the future ("I will be staying at my aunt's place next month"). It's formed by combining "will be" or "shall be" with the present participle.
If you think about it, you'll probably realize that while you may not have known their names, you already use all these tenses (and several more!) in your everyday speech. The challenge is recognizing that you're using them and why, using them correctly, and transferring that knowledge into your written work -- rather than limiting yourself to just a few overused and over-simplified tenses.
(Adapted with permission from A Fanfic Writer's Guide To Writing (or, How To Be In The Ten Percent), by Robert M. Schroeck. It is copyright (C) 2006-2019, Robert M. Schroeck, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.)
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