A Lesson on Tense


Alright, I’m going to take a moment here and go back to high school English, and spell out a quick lesson on the difference between different tenses and the importance of sticking to just one throughout your book.

Why?

Because it’s annoying when a writer starts out talking about what a character did, and then suddenly a third of the way through the book simply talks about what the character will do. So pay attention.

I will be pulling examples out of the Chicago Manual of Style, so if you’d like to follow along, I suggest you go out and buy one. In fact, on second thought, I suggest that every writer (and editor) snatch up a copy of this wordsmith’s bible and keep on hand. It’s a godsend for nearly every question you could have about grammar, writing, publishing laws, language use, etc.

Alright, so on we go. Ready kids?

What is Tense?

Tense shows the time in which an act, state, or condition occurs or occurred. There are three basic divisions of time: past, present, and future. Each of those three divisions breaks up into the smaller subdivisions listed below.

Present Tense

Also called the present indicative, the present-tense form is the infinitive verb’s stem (simply add an s for third-person singular), indicating acts, conditions, or states that occur in the present or a habitual action or truth. In literature, it may also be used to narrate the plot of a fictional work.

Examples include:

I read
The editor edits every day
Bad grammar is a health threat (kidding…but not really)

Past Tense

Uses the basic inflected form, also called past indicative. This tense indicates an act, state, or condition that occurred in the past.

Examples include:

We picked up yesterday’s mail
He opened up the first submission slowly
He tossed it away

Future Tense

Form the future tense by using will with your verb’s stem to refer to something that will or is expected to happen.

Examples include:

I will write this post even it if kills me
Some readers will actually pay attention
I will burn the next manuscript I see that doesn’t follow these basic guidelines…

Present Perfect Tense

This tense uses have or has with the principal verb’s past participle (a word formed from a verb and used as an adjective) showing something that has now finished or continues up to the present. This tense is different than past tense because it is more vague on time, while past tense is more specific.

Examples include:

I have read all the manuscripts
It has been a long day at work
I have been dealing with bad grammar for far too long

Past Perfect Tense

Also known as pluperfect, this is formed by using had with the verb’s past participle referring to an action, state, or condition that was completed before another specified past time or action.

Examples include:

The writer had submitted his manuscript before he edited it
By the time the writer realized this, the shit had hit the fan

Future Perfect Tense

You can form this by placing will have before the verb’s past participle. This tense refers to something that is expected to be finished before another future act or time.

Examples include:

The editor will have read fifteen manuscripts before the end of the day
The writer will have written five hundred words by two o’clock

So why is it important?

Verbs describe action, a state, or a condition. Your verbs help you tell the story, and you want the reading to flow naturally, in the correct order that they happen. It’s important to use the correct tense because if you mix several tenses up, your reader is going to get lost:

She thinks quietly as she jumped over the log. Wait, did she jump or is going to jump? The dog is whimpering and walked…no, he’s walking toward her–he’s not there yet. Does she stab the dog as she’s jumping or before…wait, why the f*&# is she stabbing a damn dog anyway?

You see? It’s distracting and can be confusing, and will get your manuscript trashed if it happens a lot. So make sure to go back and double check your tense before submitting.