Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Writer Wednesday: A Tip For Tenses

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:

Continuing action:
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.


  1. I love replacement examples. Linking verbs are the worst! I'm also trying to avoid using senses to describe things. Example, "She smelled roses and orange zest in the room."

    I'd rather now use, "Roses and orange zest filled the room."

    1. Yes, that's a much better way to do it! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Excellent examples, Kelly. My feeling would be to avoid past progressive when possible.

  3. Agreed! I can always tell the depth of a writer's practice by the verbs they use.

    1. Yes! Great writers can do more with fewer words.

  4. This is great advice. Everything has a place.

  5. Great advice! I had a client once who had a very strict rule that we couldn't use any helping verbs at ALL. Which is just silly because (as you can see in this sentence), "is" has many uses. I did notice how much stronger my writing was, though. I'm not quite that extreme these days, but I do often look closer at is, was, etc. and make sure I'm really using the words correctly.

    1. I took a class where were couldn't use passive voice at all. It was challenging in a very good way.

  6. I'm the worst at grammar. So glad I've got a cp that is terrific with it! =)


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