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Verb Tenses: A Bird's-Eye View

Get your grammar fix(ed) in a minute or less. For the next four Grammar posts (tucked in between our Spelunking Speculative Fiction posts), we're gonna get down and dirty with verb tenses.

Why? Because it's important to writing. Writing comes across as weak if your characters are only BEING instead of doing. Or if they're THINKING about their next plan of action. Honestly, even if they're STARTING to get to it. 

They need to do it. Act. 

Nobody wants to read about the windup. They want to watch the pitch. They want to trace the arc of the bat on the swing and the follow-through. See the ball rocket through the blue, clear the fence.

Is the windup important? Of course. But that doesn't mean it needs to own the page.

It gets a mention. It's the setup.

So let's figure out how to master the verb tenses. When we talk about verb tenses, we're actually discussing two different things: 

tense and form

I'll give you the bird's-eye view today, and then over the next four Get Your Grammar Fix(ed) posts, we'll land on theforms one at a time and take a look around. 

We'll see how it applies to writing.

So hop on the back of this Middle Earth eagle with me, and let's get up there. See what's what.

(Yeah, that's a cool pic. I'll let you pause for a second.)

Okay. There are three verb tenses, and I think they require zero explanation. I'm sure you'll agree. 


For each one of those tenses, there are four options to express the action. Each form implies something different.


SIMPLE. The action happens (or doesn't, if you toss in "not"). Once. That's it.

 Beat, Quinn sank into the chair.

PERFECT. The action already happened, before the time referenced in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. 

Sandy didn't give a rip how tired he was. She had waited hours for news.

PROGRESSIVE. This is used when you need to indicate that the action continues during the given time frame.

"So," she said. "Spit it out. I'm listening."

PERFECT-PROGRESSIVE. Not as common, this form combines the perfect and the progressive forms. The action was happening continuously (or used to happen) before the time frame in the rest of the scene. If you write fiction, you better have a good reason to utilize this baby. It's cumbersome.

     Quinn rolled his eyes.
     "Don't. Don't do that. While you've been out there in the thick of this, I've had to sit here and wonder. My mind has been creating the worst possible scenarios. You need to fill me in."

Got it? These verb tenses and forms all get combined, and you use the combos to communicate exactly what you intend. In the weeks ahead, we'll discuss which work the best in fiction, and we'll talk about when the others could be argued as necessary.

But in general, it's best to keep it simple.

Here are all 12 tense/form combos in all their glory:

simple present
simple past
simple future

present perfect
past perfect
future perfect

present progressive
past progressive
future progressive

present perfect progressive
past perfect progressive
future perfect progressive

See? Even in a list, some of them look tiresome. You won't use all of these in your writing, but it happens. 

It has happened. 

It will be happening.


Comment below with a sentence of your own imagination and tell me what tense and form the verb of the main clause is (if you dare). 

Fist bumps and my respect if you get it right.

Lest you think I forgot, guess who won her choice of Seek and Hide or Found and Lost by Amanda G. Stevens?

Mary Beth Dahl.

That's who. Mary Beth, Amanda will be in touch.

Thanks for swinging by.

Thanks to Mutant Surfing, Brandon Dierker, and Chrisjtse for the images.

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