Monday, June 10, 2019

Understanding Past Continuous and Past Perfect Verb Tenses


By Linda Yezak

For some reason, certain words have landed on someone's "hit list" and consequently have become taboo—to the detriment of clarity in our writing. I don't know who that "someone" is or why anyone should pay attention to his opinion, but editors who understand grammar wisely ignore him.

One of the words currently cloaked in shame is "was." To a certain extent, I understand this. Relying on it is a sign of laziness. But let's take a look at it. One of the two sentences below is a surefire example of lazy writing. Guess which:

  • A - As I watched, I realized he was strong as an ox.
  • B - When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally.

Gold star to whoever said A.

Past Continuous
"He was strong as an ox" is telling, and adding the simile—especially a cliché—doesn't help. That sentence is a sign of lazy writing. "As I watched, he hefted a one-ton Ford pickup with his bare hands" illustrates how strong he is and doesn't contain a single "was."

Example B, however, uses the past continuous (or past progressive) verb tense. It illustrates ongoing action. To use simple past tense in this sentence changes the meaning: "When I saw him, he sat by Sally" means the main character watched him assume the seat beside Sally. "When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally" means he had already assumed the seat and was still there when the main character saw him.

Okay, granted, that seems like a fine line. The site edufind.com describes it better: "The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past."

It is used:
  • often to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly."
  • to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action: "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."

Does that help clarify?

Past continuous is a valid verb tense and can't help it if "was" is part of its makeup. Be discriminating about the "was" verbs you're trying to obliterate from your work.

Past Perfect
Authors frequently write in past tense, but when they want to illustrate something that is further past in their story's history than simple "past," they should use the "past perfect" tense—which, unfortunately, is also on the hit list. This is another one I can understand to a certain extent. Reading that a character "had" done this and "had" done that through several paragraphs can be cumbersome, but leaving it out entirely can confuse the timeline in the reader's mind.

If you're doing a brief history, a brief backstory, use past perfect: When she first got there, she had expected five-star treatment since she was a movie star.  Instead, she'd been treated as if she were no one special. Now, she realized they had given her special treatment—they’d treated her as if she were family.

As short as this is, the past perfect tense isn't bothersome, and it helps to use contractions to cut down on the "hads." To stretch this into several paragraphs of backstory, however, the past perfect tense would be a pain.

The secret is to ground your reader in the backstory by using past perfect in the first several lines and revert to past tense until the last several lines. Toward the end of the backstory, use past perfect again to cue the reader that you're ending the backstory and preparing to re-enter "story present" (which, of course, is told in past tense. Can we get any more confusing?).

But the best thing to do with long backstory passages is to determine whether the reader really needs to know what you're about to dump on her and whether there is a better way to present it—a topic better left to another post.

Don't deprive yourself of the various verb tenses, which are some of the tools we authors have to present our stories, just because some nameless someone has declared war on certain words. "Had" and "was," used in combination with other verbs, help to provide clarity in your work, and shouldn't be shunned indiscriminately.

Two sites that can help tremendously with verbs are conjugation.com and edufind.com. Make the most of 'em!

(Photos courtesy of Blogpiks.com and Stuart Miles.)

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Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee—with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.




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4 comments:

  1. Excellent article, Linda! Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Oh thank you! This clarifies and allows me not to feel guilty when I use the word, was, in the correct way. Whew!

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