Monday, August 22, 2011

Grammar Brigade: Tense? It's all in the timing.

(Edit: You may also want to read the post The verb "to be")

Tense - not tension, although it can cause that - is all about when things occur.  But sometimes, it's a little more complicated than it looks, figuring out how to express the when, especially if you're trying to keep your tenses in agreement.

Tense, the verb forms express when things happen, can be loosely categorized into past, present, and future.  That's easy; you already know those!

But tense can also be sub-categorized into simple, progressive, and perfect.  That's a little more complex.

Let's look at an example:

The tense forms of "to walk"

Now let's throw them into a relative timeline:

The "simple" tense takes place right at the specified time - a certain point in the past, the present, or a certain point in the future.  This is a point in time to which you are directly referring, the setting of your story.  It begins during your moment of reference, and ends during the moment of your reference.  For example, Angela walks down to the training arena to talk to Mick.  Angela begins the walk and ends the walk during this sentence.

The progressive tense is an action which is taking place at that time - a continuous action which begins before and continues after the moment of referral.  For example, he is walking around the training yard while Angela updates him on the status of the knights.  He was walking before Angela began talking to him, and he will continue walking throughout the conversation, and possibly even after.

The perfect tense is an action which has taken place before the time of reference. By the point of reference, it has already ended.  Angela has walked with Mick through the training yards many times before.  Those walks are all completed.

The perfect progressive indicates a verb taking place over a long period of time, began before the moment of reference and probably before some progressive event.  For example, Laurel has been walking in the courtyard since noon.  That's before Angela came down, and before Mick began walking.  It also continues during the moment - Laurel is still walking while Angela and Mick are walking.

These terms are all relative to one another, and can help place events in order.  See how they're applied here:

The knight Laurel had been practicing his jousts when Mick, Captain of the Guard, joined him in the courtyard.  They sparred together for a few minutes, before Angela interrupted.  Angela was working the purchase order, and needed to know how many straw dummies she should order.  Mick had inventoried the dummies the week night before.  He told her he needed fourteen more.

One last note - you can use all the subtenses in a single paragraph, but it's usually considered poor form to switch tenses (past, present, or future) in the same work without clear time transitions.  This is a general note, and there are cases where it's acceptable, but it's something to avoid.

Try using all four subtenses in a paragraph of your own, and share them here, in the comments!

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