Today's topic comes from Lidy, who asked:
"The trouble comes with which tense to use. Simple past or past progressive? But then I end up mixing and switching tenses. Is there a trick or tip to keep your tenses straight/consistent?"
First, for anyone not familiar with the term past progressive, let me explain it. Past progressive can indicate a continuing action or an action that was interrupted or happening when something else occurred. You write this tense by using a form of "to be" and a verb ending in -ing. Here are some examples with the past progressive in italics:
Tom was being a bad friend.
I was writing all afternoon.
Interrupted/happening when something else occurred:
I was sleeping when my dog suddenly started to bark.
I was leaving the house when the phone rang.
Okay, so here's my advice. Avoid "to be" (helping verbs) at all costs. This is something I learned when I took writing courses. "To be" (in all its forms: is, am, was, were, are) is a sign of weak writing. Let me rewrite the examples above to remove the use of "to be" verbs.
Tom's actions made him a bad friend.
I drafted my book all afternoon.
As I walked out the front door, the phone rang.
My dog's loud bark woke me from a deep sleep.
Now I could've constructed better sentences, but this is just to give you an idea of how to do this so I kept my examples simple. Basically, avoiding "to be" will result in stronger sentences. However, if you are mixing past and past progressive, don't assume you're incorrect in doing so. There is a time and place for past progressive. The real question is, do you want to use past progressive when "to be" verbs are stereotyped as weak writing and can be avoided?
*If you have a question you'd like me to answer from the other side of the editor's desk, feel free to leave it in the comments and I'll schedule it for a future post.