“While I was walking through the park, this giant spider appears out of nowhere and scared the living daylights out of me!” What’s wrong with that sentence? Absolutely nothing, if you’re as terrified of spiders as I am*, but at least a few things if you’re a stickler for verb tense.
Verb tense is a slippery slope when we mix in informal writing, casual speech and the art of storytelling. Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to keeping the tension to a minimum on verb tense.
Verb tense reflects a sense of time. And timing, as they say, is everything. Here’s a quick rundown on your basic verb tenses:
- Present tense – things are happening now.
Simple present tense – I walk. He walks. They walk.
Simple present progressive – I am walking. He is walking. They are walking.
- Past tense – been there, done that.
Simple past tense (completed action or condition) – I walked. He walked. They walked.
Present perfect (completed or continuing action or condition) – I have been walking for an hour. My feet have been hurting.
Past perfect (action completed before another) – I had walked at least two miles before you joined me for the last two.
Past progressive (continuous completed action) – I had three good walks last week.
Present perfect progressive (action going into present) – I have been walking every day this week.
Past perfect progressive (continuing action interrupted by another) – I had been walking through the park when it started to rain.
- Future tense – things that will happen.
Simple future – I will walk tomorrow morning.
Future perfect (future action done before another) – By the time this post is out, I will have walked two miles.
Future progressive (continuing future action) – I will be walking every day on my vacation.
Future perfect progressive (continuing future action done before another) – When we get to the airport, I will have met my walking goal of 10 miles per week.
How we apply this in our writing, as always, depends on context. There are two overall guidelines I would recommend you follow.
- Don’t change the tense of the verb unless the timing of an action demands that you do.
- Keep verb tense consistent in sentences, paragraphs, and essays.
*Note to the spider lovers out there – I respect spiders immensely for the job they do as long as they follow one cardinal rule: do not come into my house. If a spider enters my house, it has crossed MY web and, therefore, must be destroyed. Unless, of course, it moves at all, then I will scream and throw my shoe at it. Check out a beautiful (albeit terrifying in any other setting than a garden) Orb Weaver I saw on a recent visit to a friend’s farm.
Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire and occasional arachnophobe.