From Rick:

I’ve previously done three posts on verb tenses. In this fourth one, I hope to teach you how to untangle the mystery of dealing with verb tenses and to boost your confidence with them. This is where we put theory into practice.

Here are links to the previous installments in case you haven’t read them or need a refresher.

MASTERING VERB TENSES-PART 1 (6/24/13)

MASTERING VERB TENSES-PART 2 (9/29/14)

MASTERING VERB TENSES-PART 3 (5/11/15)

Any language is made up of three basic components: words that designate or name something (nouns and pronouns), words that describe what those things are doing (verbs), and various descriptors and modifiers (adjective and adverbs) to tell us more about those nouns and verbs. A few other words, like prepositions, are used to tie those pieces together.

Besides denoting actions, verbs perform another vital function: they tell us WHEN the actions take place. In simplest form, they refer to past, present and future actions, but as we saw in PART 3 of this series, we can fine tune those time designations.

The key to using verb tenses properly is understanding WHEN the action you are describing takes place with regard to other pieces of the story and being consistent in expressing those times.

So, let’s see if you’ve been paying attention. The following passage is written in past tense, but I’ve put a few verb tense errors in it. Can you find them? And can you correct them beofre I show you how it should read?

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[EXAMPLE 1, IN PAST TENSE, with some tense errors]

Drey liked the dark danger of the streets of Kunego City. Its nightfog covers and caresses him. It lets him dream.

“Orphanboy!”

Drey froze. Badboys are bigger and faster and know the streets better. They’d catch him, and it would go worse for him if he tried to escape—or so Kaf warned him. But a fourteen-year knows how to take care of himself. He doesn’t need his older brother to protect him.

One badboy came around the corner of a building and ambled toward him, tall with greasy, stringy hair and the outbreak of a chin beard. “Wanna play with us, orphanboy?”

Others followed. Their feral eyes glowed under the lime-green streetlights. Drey recognized one who used to live at the orphanage, with a half-healed slice down his cheek and wilder eyes than the others. Another stared at him and sidespoke to the first one, their packboy. “Ooo, he’s a darkskin.” Drey’s dark tan skin stood out among the paler-skinned Nelafini. “I never played with a darkskin before.”

*****

Here are the errors. In the first paragraph “covers,” “caresses,” and “lets” should be past tense: covered, caressed, let).

In the third paragraph, the second sentence slipped into present tense. It should be “were bigger” and “knew the streets.” Same with the last two sentences of that paragraph. All of the narrative must be in the same tense.

There’s a different tense problem in the last part of the third sentence of that paragraph: or so Kaf warned him. This is simple past tense, but it should be past perfect “or so Kaf had warned him.” It must be past perfect because Kaf told him this prior to this scene. I said in the previous posts on tenses that we use the past perfect to indicate action happening before the current narrative time.

Note, however, that dialogue is almost always in present tense because what the speaker is saying is in the present from his or her frame of reference. If the speaker is talking about something done in the past (in this case where the badboy says “I never played with a darkskin before”), then you would use past tense or past perfect according to the speaker’s reference. Likewise, if the speaker plans to do something, you would use future tense.

Oddly, I rarely see writers have problems with tenses in dialogue. I suspect this is because we intuitively use the right tenses when we speak, so we naturally that into writing dialogue.

Here’s the corrected version of the first example, using the proper verb tenses.

*****

[EXAMPLE 1, CORRECTED VERSION]

Drey liked the dark danger of the streets of Kunego City. Its nightfog covered and caressed him. It let him dream.

“Orphanboy!”

Drey froze. Badboys were bigger and faster and knew the streets better. They’d catch him, and it would go worse for him if he tried to escape—or so Kaf had warned. But a fourteen-year knew how to take care of himself. He didn’t need his older brother to protect him.

One badboy came around the corner of a building and ambled toward him, tall with greasy, stringy hair and the outbreak of a chin beard. “Wanna play with us, orphanboy?”

Others followed. Their feral eyes glowed under the lime-green streetlights. Drey recognized one who used to live at the orphanage, with a half-healed slice down his cheek and wilder eyes than the others. Another stared at him and sidespoke to the first one, their packboy. “Ooo, he’s a darkskin.” Drey’s dark tan skin stood out among the paler-skinned Nelafini. “I never played with a darkskin before.”

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That, hopefully, was easy enough. Let’s try another passage, but this time let’s use one written in present tense.

[EXAMPLE 2, PRESENT TENSE]

With the book tucked under his arm Jay looks up at the late-February sky as he approaches the wooden bench. The gray, winter clouds are thinning, and it’s not as cold as it has been. Spring isn’t far off, he hopes. He’s tired of winter. He sits and places the book on his lap. Brothers are special, and Ricky is no exception.

College has kept him busy lately. He hasn’t visited his older brother for nearly two months, but he can’t ignore a birthday. He worked hard his first year in college and so Ricky would be proud of him. He thought for a long time about this present. What do you get a special brother for a special birthday to show how much you appreciate him for everything he has done for you, for helping you with those hard subjects that came easy to him but confounded you?

*****

Pay close attention to the tenses in the second paragraph. We used “has kept” and “hasn’t visited” (present perfect) to show ongoing actions that began in the past but whose action have continued into the present. Then we used “he worked hard” to show a past action. “He thought” is another past tense to show completed action in the past.

We used “he has done” (present perfect) to show action started in the past and completed in the present, at least up to this time. We could also have used “he did” (simple past tense) to indicate that he’s grateful for what Ricky already did in the past, independent of what he might still he doing for him now or do in the future. I don’t mean that to sound confusing. It’s a subtle difference, and which tense (present perfect or past) you choose there depends on what you want to convey it to the reader: a thank-you for past performance only, or a thank-you for past performance and to imply that Ricky may continue his help into the present.

NOTE: In the story this came from, the scene is one of remembrance because Ricky is no longer alive. While the simple past tense might seem the obvious choice in that case, Jay is remembering Ricky as if he were still alive, hence the present he’s brought to lay at Ricky’s grave.

Finally we used “came” and “confounded” (past tense again) at the end of the passage to show completed actions in the past.

*****

Now, here’s the same passage put into PAST tense. Note where the tenses change and where they do not.

[EXAMPLE 2, IN PAST TENSE]

With the book tucked under his arm Jay looked up at the late-February sky as he approached the wooden bench. The gray, winter clouds were thinning, and it was not as cold as it had been. Spring wasn’t far off, he hoped. He was tired of winter. He sat and placed the book on his lap. Brothers were special, and Ricky was no exception.

College had kept him busy lately. He hadn’t visited his older brother for nearly two months, but he couldn’t ignore a birthday. He had worked hard his first year in college and so Ricky would be proud of him. He had thought for a long time about this present. What should you get a special brother for a special birthday to show how much you appreciated him for everything he had done for you, for helping you with those hard subjects that had come easy to him but had confounded you?

*****

The only wording change here was in the line “What should you get” as opposed to “What do you get” in the present-tense version. Simply changing “do” to “did” would change the meaning of the sentence. We could have used “What should you get” in the first version instead because it’s a conditional and works in both cases, but “do/did” does not work in both.

Based on the explanation of the Jay’s intent with the present, one can understand why present tense might be a more appropriate choice for the story in the first place. Present tense brings the story more into the present and into Jay’s memories of his brother, treating him as if he’s still here. This is why verb tenses can be a little tricky at times. You want to express the narrative from the narrator’s viewpoint instead of actual story time. When we talked about flashbacks in previous posts, I showed you how we usually start them with past perfect, switch into simple past tense for the bulk of it to give a more immediate feel, then go back to past perfect at the end of the flashback to signal the reader that you’re exiting the flashback.

This works for flashbacks when the main narrative is in past tense. When the main narrative is in present tense, flashbacks tend to get trickier tense-wise. Maybe I’ll deal with those in another post later on.

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For our last example, let’s look at another one written in past tense, but this one contains a lot of dialogue (which uses present tense most of the time), and it opens with a past perfect tense. I will explain the past perfect use in this one next time (Part 5).

Meanwhile, study this example and look at each verb tense to convince your why each is the way it is. Play close attention to the last paragraph of dialogue where present, past, and future tenses are all used.

Also note paragraph 7 (Granted…) that uses past perfect to express prior events: (hadn’t seen him) and (had both been busy).

[EXAMPLE 3]

Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

“Hiya, Jake.”

He recognized the slight Australian accent. “Bryce?”

“Your one and only grad school roommate.”

“It’s good to hear from you. What’ve you been up to?”

“Still digging up the past, except I have a small problem that requires your kind of genius. Can you hop a flight tomorrow morning to scenic Upstate New York?”

Granted, Jake hadn’t seen him in over two years because they had both been busy, but this was a bit too impulsive, even for capricious Bryce. Still, a short vacation from this hot, humid Illinois summer sounded good. But…

“Can’t do it. I’m in the middle of a project. How about next weekend?”

“That’ll be too late.”

Jake heard a nervous edge in Bryce’s voice. “Bryce, what’s this about?”

“I can’t discuss it over the phone. Bring old clothes. Your ticket’s waiting for you at the airport.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“No, not yet. I’m relying on you to keep me out of it. I know you’re never out of bed before ten, but a 6:30 a.m. flight was the best I could arrange. You’ll have to switch planes a couple of times, and there’re no in-flight meals. Best I could do. Sorry. I’ll meet you at the Plattsburgh airport late tomorrow afternoon.”

*****

Clear, I hope? See you next time for the next lesson on tenses.

–Rick