Jan 5 2013

Why are verbs so tense?

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I’ve heard that mixing “ing” and “ed” verbs in a sentence is wrong. But isn’t this is the grammatically correct way to describe when a second action takes place within the time frame of another past tense action? – Ben H. Hugh

What verb forms should you use when a sentence contains two actions? It depends. How’s that for an answer?

There are lots of variables, and verb tense gives writers and editors fits. I see it done incorrectly all the time on work I edit. I also mess it up in my writing until I go back and edit myself, or my editor catches it.

There are two basic ways in which multiple actions occur in the same sentence. Either sequential (one thing then the other) or simultaneous (both things happen at the same time).

Sequential actions—a character does one thing and then does another thing:

He drove home and cooked dinner. [Correct. Don't use the -ing verb]

Driving home, he cooked dinner. [Wrong, unless he's cooking dinner in the car while driving.] 

Simultaneous actions—a character does two things at the same time:

He drove home, thinking of her. [Correct. The -ing verb shows the two actions happen at the same time]

It can get slightly more complicated if the two actions are done by two different characters.

She walked down the beach, the sun shining on her face. [Correct. The two actions are happening at the same time]

You could break it into two separate actions and it will be just as clear.

She walked down the beach. The sun shone on her face.

You can also use one of those timing words such as then, as, or while to indicate timing of actions. Sometimes one of these is necessary, but they can be cumbersome, so don’t overuse them:

As he drove home, he thought of her.

He drove home then cooked dinner.

She walked down the beach, while the sun shone on her face.

A problem shows up if the actions are sequential, but written as simultaneous, like the example above about the guy driving and cooking dinner at the same time. It’s not always that obvious:

She walked down the beach, going for a swim. [Wrong. She didn’t walk on the beach and swim at the same time.

She walked down the beach and went for a swim. [Correct.]

Another problem comes in with the famous dangling participle:

Walking down the beach, the sun shone on her face. [Wrong. The way this sentence is written, it means the sun was walking down the beach.]

You could say:

She walked down the beach, and the sun was shining in her face.

But that adds a passive ‘to be’ verb where it’s not needed and weakens the sentence.

Then there’s the past continuous tense, which pairs a ‘to be’ verb with an ‘ing’ verb. This indicates an action that was in progress over a period of time in the past. If writing in simple past tense (the standard for most fiction), the continuous tense indicates an ongoing action.

She was walking down the beach. [Shows an ongoing action; she started walking at some point in the past, and continued to walk for a period of time]

Why is it needed if ‘She walked down the beach’ is just as clear in context? The continuous tense gets used a lot when it’s not needed, even if technically correct.

But let’s get back to sentences with two actions. If you need to show a continuous action that started in the past and continues until the next action, you might need the past continuous verb tense:

She was walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her of her flip-flops.

This shows she was in the process of walking down the beach—she started walking before she was robbed, and she was still in the process of walking at the moment of the robbery. Sort of a mix of the sequential and simultaneous actions because one action took place over a period of time, then the second action occurred at a single moment in time while the first action was still happening.

Then there’s past perfect, which often uses ‘had’ with the -ed verb:

She had walked down the beach.

This shows she started the action in the past, and that action is now completed. It happened at a prior time, such as:

Every day this week, she had walked down the beach. Today it rained, so she stayed inside. [Note that this is all in past tense, even the current moment of 'today.']

The word ‘had’ makes it clear that this was a prior action that had been completed in the past. That, of course, gets confusing if you’re writing in past tense, because everything technically happened in the past. When writing in past tense, use the past perfect to indicate an action that was completed before the ‘present moment’ in the scene. It helps differentiate between the present moment written in past tense and an action that happened prior to the present moment.

To really get confusing, when ‘had’ is paired with a ‘to be’ verb + an ‘ing’ verb, you’ve got the past continuous verb tense.

She had been walking down the beach.

This also refers to a prior time (maybe five minutes ago, maybe five years ago, doesn’t matter). But it shows a continuous or progressive, longer term action, something that started in the past, continued for a period of time, and was completed in the past. This verb tense works best when it leads to the next action or event.

Yesterday, she had been walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her.

This indicates that it happened at a time prior to the present moment in the story, not the current, live action scene in the story; that the walk was a progressive action that took up some amount of time; that the walk had finished before the current moment in the story; that the walk was still in progress when she was robbed. That’s packing a lot of information into two verb tenses.

The issue with these various verb tenses is that they get misused, or they’re used when not needed. They use extra words and pad the writing. My personal preference is more direct writing with as few words as possible (not that you can tell from this blog post). I like to reserve the more complex verb tenses for the times when they are truly needed.

To complicate matters even more, all these recommendations change slightly if you’re writing in present tense.

Remember that each verb tense has a specific use. Sometimes more than one tense can work, depending on exactly how you want to portray the actions to readers and the surrounding context. There are lots of ways to use them incorrectly, and there are ways that are technically correct, but tend to water down the prose, especially if used too frequently.