Feeling Tense? A Bit Past Perfect?
Posted by: Lisa in Writing/Editing Tips: Nuts and Bolts
My good friend W. has requested that I address the issue of verb tense. Since she is herself both a talented writer and an editor, the request indicates to me that tense and voice cause headaches for writers at all levels of experience and grammar-geekitude. Lest you think it’s only a matter of past, present, and future, read on. You have much to learn—or relearn, since our eighth-grade English teachers probably covered this, but we’ve forgotten every word they said.
Two things make creative writing extra tricky when it comes to verb tense. First, most fiction is written in the past tense. Ever stop to think about this and wonder why? Of course, we’ve all read novels written in the present tense, but they’re the exception, and it’s usually a device that stands out for its rarity. I imagine the past tense flows more freely from our pens because the act of telling or writing fictional stories developed out of various traditions of storytelling in which the stories were either true or legend/folk tale, and thus would be related in the past tense.
So when we read a story in the past tense, something in our brains says, “This is being related to me after it has already happened. So it is fact. It is true. It is real.” Paradoxically, fiction written in the present tense seems (at least to me) a little distancing, since I’m more likely to notice the author’s hand at work, and I have to take a moment to wrap my head around the uncommon style. The best writers, of course, can use the present tense to the advantage of their work and make it feel like the most natural form of storytelling on earth. But they can do anything, those guys.
Present tense may make life easy when you’re writing a business letter, but I’m in the midst of editing a novel written in the present tense, and while it does help to create a suspenseful, in-the-moment tone (it’s a mystery/thriller), the author shifts around awkwardly between tenses so much that I keep being jolted out of the moment. It’s present… in the next sentence it’s past… in the next sentence it’s past perfect… then present again… I hardly know where (or when) I am.
But I digress. Past we read and write most often, and past leads to past perfect, past imperfect, pluperfect, etc. Some basic definitions and examples might help clear the fog.
Past (definition self-explanatory):
I wrote the article.Past Perfect, aka Pluperfect (I prefer pluperfect, because I like saying it):
I had looked up the term pluperfect before I wrote the article.Okay, so pluperfect is formed with a verb’s past participle form and that pesky little had that we never know quite when to use. It’s straightforward in a sentence such as my example, but what about an entire paragraph or passage in which some things take place in the past and some take place (and have been completed) in the more distant past? It’s not always necessary to use had in every instance of the pluperfect; that can become repetitious. Often one use of the pluperfect makes the tense of the surrounding verbs clear in context:
I had looked up the term pluperfect before I wrote the article. My research confirmed that it was synonymous with past perfect.Could I have written “had confirmed”? Yes, but that might have further confused matters: Does the second instance of pluperfect take place in a third time period, i.e., an even more distant past than “had looked up”? As is, it’s clear from the context that “looked up” and “confirmed” occurred at the same time. But if several sentences stand in between, you may need to use the pluperfect again to clarify the time frame for the reader. Clarity can be a judgment call, and sometimes the most effective way to make that call is to either read the passage out loud or have a friend read it and confirm that they interpreted the sequence of events the way you intended.
Past Participle (the form that’s used with had to form the pluperfect): In my examples, the past participle is looked. Same as the past, you’ll notice. True for regular verbs, but not for some irregular ones. Example:
I had done my research before writing this article.The past tense, of course, would be did, not done. Simple enough: if you ever find yourself writing “had did,” and you’re not Flannery O’Connor, you might consider another pursuit.
Present Participle, aka Gerund:
I am writing this article at 3:00 a.m.Another example: My brain is starting to hurt.
One last distinction for the time being: perfect and imperfect tenses. I gave an example of the past perfect (pluperfect) above: it’s used to form a verb whose action took place further in the past than the regular past tense verb it accompanies. So what about…
Present Perfect (We’re not in the past anymore… or are we?)
I have written many articles before this one.Present perfect verbs are formed using has or have plus the past participle. In contrast to the past perfect, which describes an action that occurred prior to the action in the past tense, the present perfect indicates something that occurred at some unspecified time before the present. That is, it can’t be used with such specific modifiers as yesterday or last January, but can be used with vague modifiers such as so far or already.
Last but not least:
Past Imperfect (aren’t they all? I prefer the alternate term past progressive)
I was writing this article.Why is it imperfect? Because it’s unfinished. It’s not “I wrote this article” and was done with it. Essentially, it’s the past form of the present participle (”I am writing this article”), but just to confuse us, the grammar gods chose not to call anything the present imperfect (though you will on occasion see present progressive used in place of present participle).
Even more complex tense constructions exist, which perhaps I’ll delve into in the future, but that’s a start. Confused? Me too. Bored? Understandable. But if you keep a clear head about this stuff and pay close attention to it while you’re writing, especially if you’re switching between time periods, your readers will be less likely to be confused. And they’re the important ones.
Thanks to Lisa
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I feel tense reg past perfect and the above passage expressed my feelings
Senior teachers suggestions in this regards are most welcome