Understanding how to use writing tenses is challenging. How do you mix past, present and future tense without making the reader giddy? What is the difference between ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tense? Read this simple guide for answers to these questions and more:
First, definitions of writing tenses
In English, we have so-called ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tenses in the past, present and future. The simple tense merely conveys action in the time narrated. For example:
Past (simple) tense: Sarah ran to the store.
Present (simple) tense: Sarah runs to the store.
Future (simple) tense: Sarah will run to the store
Perfect tense uses the different forms of the auxiliary verb ‘has’ plus the main verb to show actions that have taken place already (or will/may still take place). Here’s the above example sentence in each tense, in perfect form:
Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store.
Present perfect: Sarah has run to the store.
Future perfect: Sarah will have run to the store.
In the past perfect, Sarah’s run is an earlier event in a narrative past:
Sarah had run to the store many times uneventfully so she wasn’t at all prepared for what she saw that morning.
You could use the future perfect tense to show that Sarah’s plans will not impact on another event even further in the future. For example:
Sarah will have run to the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.
(You could also say ‘Sarah will be back from the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.’ This is a simpler option using the future tense with the infinitive ‘to be’.) Here are some tips for using the tenses in a novel:
1. Decide which writing tenses would work best for your story
The majority of novels are written using simple past tense and the third person:
‘She ran her usual route to the store, but as she rounded the corner she came upon a disturbing sight.’
When you start drafting a novel or a scene, think about the merits of each tense. The present tense, for example, has the virtue of:
- Immediacy: The action unfolds in the same narrative moment as the reader experiences it (there is no temporal distance: Each action happens now)
- Simplicity: It’s undeniably easier to write ‘She runs her usual route to the store’ then to juggle all sorts of remote times using auxiliary verbs
Sometimes authors are especially creative in combining tense and POV. In Italo Calvino’s postmodern classic, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), the entire story is told in the present tense, in the second person. This has the effect of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ novel. To rewrite Sarah’s story in the same tense and POV:
You run your usual route to the store, but as you round the corner you come upon a disturbing sight.
This tense choice is smart for Calvino’s novel since it increases the puzzling nature of the story. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, you, the reader, are a character who buys Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, only to discover that there are pages missing. When you attempt to return it, you get sent on a wild goose chase after the book you want.
Tense itself can enliven an element of your story’s narration. In a thriller novel, for example, you can write tense scenes in first person for a sense of present danger:
A muffled shot. He sits up in bed, tensed and listening. Can’t hear much other than the wind scraping branches along the gutter.
2. Avoid losing clarity when mixing tenses
Because stories show us chains and sequences of events, often we need to jump back and forth between earlier and present scenes and times. This is especially true in novels where characters’ memories form a crucial part of the narrative.
It’s confusing when an author changes tense in the middle of a scene. The fragmented break in continuity makes it hard to place actions in relation to each other. For example:
Sarah runs her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she came upon a disturbing scene.
This is wrong because the verbs do not consistently use the same tense, even though it is clear (from context) that Sarah’s run is a continuous action in a single scene.
Ursula K. Le Guin offers excellent advice on mixing past and present in her writing manual, Steering the Craft:
‘It is highly probably that if you go back and forth between past and present tense, if you switch the tense of your narrative frequently and without some kind of signal (a line break, a dingbat,a new chapter) your reader will get all mixed up as to what happened before what and what’s happening after which and when we are, or were, at the moment.’
In short, make sure there are clear breaks between entire sections set in different narrative references.
3: Mix the tenses for colour and variety
Le Guin raises a good point about writing tenses. Le Guin describes the downside of telling a story almost exclusively in present tense:
‘It all rather sounds alike…it’s bland, predictable, risk-free. All too often, it’s McProse. The wealth and complexity of our verb forms is part of the color of the language. Using only one tense is like having a whole set of oil paints and using only pink.’
Instead mix different tenses where appropriate, but signal changes between time settings:
That morning, she had run her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she had come upon a disturbing scene. Apart from the glass and metal sprayed across the road like some outgoing tide’s deposit, there were what looked like two stretchers, mostly eclipsed from view by a swarm of emergency workers.
Now, safely home, she decided to lie down, all the while trying to get that scene out of her mind.
Mixing the tenses can help to show the cause and effect of interlocking events. The use of the past perfect to describe the scene of an accident in the example above is effective because the past perfect shows what is already complete. It gives it an irrevocable quality, the quality of a haunting, living-on-in-memory event. Finished, but not finished in the character’s mind’s eye.
4. Practice showing shadowy past or present actions using verb forms
In addition to simple and perfect tenses, there are different ‘moods’ that show verbs as hypothetical or possible actions. In addition to the indicative mood (‘she runs to the store’) there is also the subjunctive mood (‘If she runs to the store’) and the potential mood (‘she may run to the store’).
The different moods are useful because they can show possibilities and scenarios that might have happened, or might still happen, under different circumstances. Here are examples for correct uses for each of the tenses (in active voice):
Present tense: If she runs to the store…
Past tense: If she ran to the store…
Future tense: If she should run to the store…
Present perfect tense: If she has run to the store…
Past perfect tense: If she had run to the store…
Future perfect tense: If she should have run to the store….
Think of this mood as setting up a possibility. For example: ‘If she runs to the store, she better be quick because we’re leaving in 5.’
The potential mood helps us show shadowy, more hypothetical, uncertain scenarios:
Present tense: She may run to the store.
Present perfect tense: She may have run to the store.
Past perfect: She might have run to the store.
In each of these examples, the action is a possibility and the mood (using the various forms of ‘may’) shows this. These verb moods in conjunction with tense are useful. They help us describe situations in which a narrator or character does not have full knowledge of events, or is wondering how events might pan out.
5. Practice rewriting paragraphs in different tenses
It’s often easiest to get the hang of tense by doing. Pick a paragraph by an author and rewrite in each of the tenses. Here, for example, is a paragraph from David Sedaris’ essay, ‘Buddy, Can you Spare a Tie?’:
‘The only expensive thing I actually wear is a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’
Rewritten in past simple tense:
‘The only expensive thing I actually wore was a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looked like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater was folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’
Here is the same passage in past perfect:
‘The only expensive thing I had actually worn was a navy blue cashmere sweater. It had cost four hundred dollars and had looked like it had been wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner had said, the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she had stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’
The effect is of a character describing the defining experiences before another event (before buying an even more expensive item of clothing, for example). For example, you could write ‘Before the lavish suit, the only expensive thing…’ before the paragraph.
To perfect writing tenses, make your own exercises and practice rewriting extracts from your story in each tense to see the changing effect this has on your narrative.
Do you need feedback on your use of tense in a story? Join Now Novel and get helpful critiques that will help you improve your use of tense.
Verb Tense Consistency
This handout explains and describes the sequence of verb tenses in English.
Contributors:Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Maryam Ghafoor
Last Edited: 2013-02-21 10:34:38
Throughout this document, example sentences with nonstandard or inconsistent usage have verbs in red.
Controlling shifts in verb tense
Writing often involves telling stories. Sometimes we narrate a story as our main purpose in writing; sometimes we include brief anecdotes or hypothetical scenarios as illustrations or reference points in an essay.
Even an essay that does not explicitly tell a story involves implied time frames for the actions discussed and states described. Changes in verb tense help readers understand the temporal relationships among various narrated events. But unnecessary or inconsistent shifts in tense can cause confusion.
Generally, writers maintain one tense for the main discourse and indicate changes in time frame by changing tense relative to that primary tense, which is usually either simple past or simple present. Even apparently non-narrative writing should employ verb tenses consistently and clearly.
General guideline: Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state is the same.
1. The instructor explains the diagram to students who asked questions during the lecture.
Explains is present tense, referring to a current state; asked is past, but should be present (ask) because the students are currently continuing to ask questions during the lecture period.
CORRECTED: The instructor explains the diagram to students who ask questions during the lecture.
2. About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announces the approaching storm.
Darkened and sprang up are past tense verbs; announces is present but should be past (announced) to maintain consistency within the time frame.
CORRECTED: About noon the sky darkened, a breeze sprang up, and a low rumble announced the approaching storm.
3. Yesterday we walk to school but later rode the bus home.
Walk is present tense but should be past to maintain consistency within the time frame (yesterday); rode is past, referring to an action completed before the current time frame.
CORRECTED: Yesterday we walked to school but later rode the bus home.
General guideline: Do shift tense to indicate a change in time frame from one action or state to another.
1. The children love their new tree house, which they built themselves.
Love is present tense, referring to a current state (they still love it now;) built is past, referring to an action completed before the current time frame (they are not still building it.)
2. Before they even began deliberations, many jury members had reached a verdict.
Began is past tense, referring to an action completed before the current time frame; had reached is past perfect, referring to action from a time frame before that of another past event (the action of reaching was completed before the action of beginning.)
3. Workers are installing extra loudspeakers because the music in tonight's concert will need amplification.
Are installing is present progressive, referring to an ongoing action in the current time frame (the workers are still installing, and have not finished;) will need is future, referring to action expected to begin after the current time frame (the concert will start in the future, and that's when it will need amplification.)
Controlling shifts in a paragraph or essay
General guideline: Establish a primary tense for the main discourse, and use occasional shifts to other tenses to indicate changes in time frame.
- Rely on past tense to narrate events and to refer to an author or an author's ideas as historical entities (biographical information about a historical figure or narration of developments in an author's ideas over time).
- Use present tense to state facts, to refer to perpetual or habitual actions, and to discuss your own ideas or those expressed by an author in a particular work. Also use present tense to describe action in a literary work, movie, or other fictional narrative. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, you may wish to narrate an event in present tense as though it were happening now. If you do, use present tense consistently throughout the narrative, making shifts only where appropriate.
- Future action may be expressed in a variety of ways, including the use of will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time, and a wide range of contextual cues.
Using other tenses in conjunction with simple tenses
It is not always easy (or especially helpful) to try to distinguish perfect and/or progressive tenses from simple ones in isolation, for example, the difference between simple past progressive ("She was eating an apple") and present perfect progressive ("She has been eating an apple"). Distinguishing these sentences in isolation is possible, but the differences between them make clear sense only in the context of other sentences since the time-distinctions suggested by different tenses are relative to the time frame implied by the verb tenses in surrounding sentences or clauses.
Example 1: Simple past narration with perfect and progressive elements
On the day in question...
By the time Tom noticed the doorbell, it had already rung three times. As usual, he had been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turned the stereo down and stood up to answer the door. An old man was standing on the steps. The man began to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example, the progressive verbs had been listening and was standing suggest action underway at the time some other action took place. The stereo-listening was underway when the doorbell rang. The standing on the steps was underway when the door was opened. The past perfect progressive verb had been listening suggests action that began in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that was still underway as another action began.
If the primary narration is in the present tense, then the present progressive or present perfect progressive is used to indicate action that is or has been underway as some other action begins. This narrative style might be used to describe a scene from a novel, movie, or play, since action in fictional narratives is conventionally treated as always present. For example, we refer to the scene in Hamlet in which the prince first speaks (present) to the ghost of his dead father or the final scene in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which takes place (present) the day after Mookie has smashed (present perfect) the pizzeria window. If the example narrative above were a scene in a play, movie, or novel, it might appear as follows.
Example 2: Simple present narration with perfect and progressive elements
In this scene...
By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it has already rung three times. As usual, he has been listening to loud music on his stereo. He turns the stereo down and stands up to answer the door. An old man is standing on the steps. The man begins to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example as in the first one, the progressive verbs has been listening and is standing indicate action underway as some other action takes place. The present perfect progressive verb has been listening suggests action that began in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that is still underway as another action begins. The remaining tense relationships parallel those in the first example.
In all of these cases, the progressive or -ing part of the verb merely indicates ongoing action, that is, action underway as another action occurs. The general comments about tense relationships apply to simple and perfect tenses, regardless of whether there is a progressive element involved.
It is possible to imagine a narrative based on a future time frame as well, for example, the predictions of a psychic or futurist. If the example narrative above were spoken by a psychic, it might appear as follows.
Example 3: Simple future narration with perfect and progressive elements
Sometime in the future...
By the time Tom notices the doorbell, it will have already rung three times. As usual, he will have been listening to loud music on his stereo. He will turn the stereo down and will stand up to answer the door. An old man will be standing on the steps. The man will begin to speak slowly, asking for directions.
In this example as in the first two, the progressive verbs will have been listening and will be standing indicate ongoing action. The future perfect progressive verb will have been listening suggests action that will begin in the time frame prior to the main narrative time frame and that will still be underway when another action begins. The verb notices here is in present-tense form, but the rest of the sentence and the full context of the narrative cue us to understand that it refers to future time. The remaining tense relationships parallel those in the first two examples.
General guidelines for use of perfect tenses
In general the use of perfect tenses is determined by their relationship to the tense of the primary narration. If the primary narration is in simple past, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in past perfect. If the primary narration is in simple present, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in present perfect. If the primary narration is in simple future, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in future perfect.
Past primary narration corresponds to Past Perfect (had + past participle) for earlier time frames
Present primary narration corresponds to Present Perfect (has or have + past participle) for earlier time frames
Future primary narration corresponds to Future Perfect (will have + past participle) for earlier time frames
The present perfect is also used to narrate action that began in real life in the past but is not completed, that is, may continue or may be repeated in the present or future. For example: "I have run in four marathons" (implication: "so far... I may run in others"). This usage is distinct from the simple past, which is used for action that was completed in the past without possible continuation or repetition in the present or future. For example: "Before injuring my leg, I ran in four marathons" (implication: "My injury prevents me from running in any more marathons").
Time-orienting words and phrases like before, after, by the time, and others—when used to relate two or more actions in time—can be good indicators of the need for a perfect-tense verb in a sentence.
- By the time the Senator finished (past) his speech, the audience had lost (past perfect) interest.
- By the time the Senator finishes (present: habitual action) his speech, the audience has lost (present perfect) interest.
- By the time the Senator finishes (present: suggesting future time) his speech, the audience will have lost (future perfect) interest.
- After everyone had finished (past perfect) the main course, we offered (past) our guests dessert.
- After everyone has finished (present perfect) the main course, we offer (present: habitual action) our guests dessert.
- After everyone has finished (present perfect) the main course, we will offer (future: specific one-time action) our guests dessert.
- Long before the sun rose (past), the birds had arrived (past perfect) at the feeder.
- Long before the sun rises (present: habitual action), the birds have arrived (present perfect) at the feeder.
- Long before the sun rises (present: suggesting future time), the birds will have arrived (future perfect) at the feeder.
The main tense in this first sample is past. Tense shifts are inappropriate and are indicated in bold.
The gravel crunched and spattered beneath the wheels of the bus as it swung into the station. Outside the window, shadowy figures peered at the bus through the darkness. Somewhere in the crowd, two, maybe three, people were waiting for me: a woman, her son, and possibly her husband. I could not prevent my imagination from churning out a picture of them, the town, and the place I will soon call home. Hesitating a moment, I rise from my seat, these images flashing through my mind.
(adapted from a narrative)
Inappropriate shifts from past to present, such as those that appear in the above paragraph, are sometimes hard to resist. The writer becomes drawn into the narrative and begins to relive the event as an ongoing experience. The inconsistency should be avoided, however. In the sample, will should be would, and rise should be rose.
The main tense in this second sample is present. Tense shifts—all appropriate—are indicated in bold.
A dragonfly rests on a branch overhanging a small stream this July morning. It is newly emerged from brown nymphal skin. As a nymph, it crept over the rocks of the stream bottom, feeding first on protozoa and mites, then, as it grew larger, on the young of other aquatic insects. Now an adult, it will feed on flying insects and eventually will mate. The mature dragonfly is completely transformed from the drab creature that once blended with underwater sticks and leaves. Its head, thorax, and abdomen glitter; its wings are iridescent in the sunlight.
(adapted from an article in the magazine Wilderness)
This writer uses the present tense to describe the appearance of a dragonfly on a particular July morning. However, both past and future tenses are called for when she refers to its previous actions and to its predictable activity in the future.
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