The past, the present and the future walk into a bar. It was tense. Seriously though, mastering verb tenses is essential for good grammar because they dictate the flow of action and state of being. There are the three main ones that you know well with four variations on each theme. They add complexity and interest to writing that are worth knowing too.
- The past tense speaks of something has already happened.
- The present tense describes what is happening now.
- The future tense identifies what will happen.
The Main Tenses
Using write as an example, we have the following: I wrote; I write; and I will write. Each one sets a clear expectation as to when the action did, is or will occur. For a writer, the most important thing you need to know is to keep your action in the right timeline. And that’s something a spell checker can’t do for you.
Each of the three tenses has four additional variations to get specific about when the action happens. You may not know the formal names, but you’ll certainly recognize their use. They include simple, progressive, perfect and perfect progressive. You may see progressive referred to as continuous in some texts.
The same pattern exists with each tense. The simple version is the one for which you’re probably most familiar. Let’s see them in action using the word, write.
Simple: I wrote
Progressive: I was writing
Perfect: I had written
Perfect Progressive: I had been writing
Simple: I write
Progressive: I am writing
Perfect: I have written
Perfect Progressive: I have been writing
Simple: I will write
Progressive: I will be writing
Perfect: I will have written
Perfect Progressive: I will have been writing
Using the Full Set of Tenses
As you can see, each variation opens up a lot of writing opportunities. And it’s fascinating to know how the introduction of a single word or two totally changes the meaning of the example. Beginning a sentence or story with “I was writing” promises a very different plot than simply saying “I wrote.”
They also add more action to a verb. When you say that he had been writing, you can visualize the scene more clearly than simply a statement after the fact. And use the future perfect tense, “I will have written” presents an excellent chance to stick in some back story to your fiction writing. Using the different tenses offers a better writing prompt than the simple tense.
It’s not essential that you know the specific names of each tense. You should review the perfect and perfect progressive tense in each set to review the syntax and the meaning each one conveys. An easy way to remember the progressive and perfect progressive tenses is to think of something in motion as happening. Think of the perfect tense as something completed.