Monday, August 13, 2012

Grammar Police Monday - Are You Sending Your Readers Back & Forth In Time?

"I don't write time travel," you say. 
Really? You don't?
If you're not careful with your verb tenses, you just might be.

Okay. I'm messing with you.  But verb tenses are important. No matter whether we write in first person or third, present tense or past, we need to be mindful of mistakes in verb tense. It not only harms the clarity of the story, but it can be a jolt to our readers as well.

Since most of the errors I see occur in first person, present tense novels, and I don't write in first person or present tense, I'm going to do my best with this requested topic. Bear with me.


First, let's review verb tenses. The basic ones are present, past, and past participle. For the infinitive to play, that would be play, played, and have/had played, adding -ed for the last two. Obviously irregular verbs would be different (swim / swam / swum, for example). 

There are other tenses, such as present continuous and past continuous. Examples of this would be I am playing and I was/We were playing when... Continuous tense is just thatongoing action. These verbs are also seen in participle phrases. Playing my piano, I gazed out the window at the storm. Although they are not really verbs in this case, they are participles, and their phrases act like adjectives, modifying the subject of the sentence.

There are even more tenses, such as present-, past- and future perfect, but I'm not going to get into those today. The bottom line when it comes to verb tenses is: pay attention to the tense you're writing in and stay true to that according to when the various actions happened in relation to each other. Do not shift from one tense to another if the time frame for each action or state of being is the same.

Present tense, first person example: 

"Can't we work this out?" I ask.
"It's over," Curtis says and walks away. 
So this is what rejection felt like.

Did you spot the error? Notice how the verbs are all present tense until you get to the word felt. It should be present tense, too. 
  
"Can't we work this out?" I ask. 
"It's over," Curtis says and walks away.  
So this is what rejection feels like. 

Same thing here:
I sit next to Paul, my best friend's boyfriend. He leans over, kisses my neck and tells me he loves me. I didn't know what to do

The last sentence should be I don't know what to do.

Let's look at something in past tense, third person.
Mary bought the dress, and then we walk to the cafe. 

Did you catch the error?
It should have been Mary bought the dress, and then we walked to the cafe.

Now something a little more complicated. See if you can spot the error here.
Brian walked through the crowd of students, watching to see if Annie is among them, but he didn't see her. 

This is past tense and all happening at the same time, so 'is' should be 'was.'
Brian walked through the crowd of students, watching to see if Annie was among them, but he didn't see her.

Why is watching, a present continuous tense verb, correct? Because it is being used in a participle phrase (watching to see...) which modifies the subject, Brian. He was looking for her while he walked.

There are times when verb tense should shift. In that case, use the correct one so the meaning of each clause is clear.

Ex: Joan cooks on the stove her husband bought for her last year.

The verb cooks refers to a present stateJoan still cooksbut the purchase of the stove happened in the past, so bought is correct.

Verb tense should also shift if you're writing a flashback. In fact, it can get tricky, so I'll save it for another lesson. 

Do you have any examples of verb tense errors?  If you post one, either cite the published source or change the names to protect guilty. ;)




22 comments:

  1. I slump over my keyboard and hoped to get the lesson correct.

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  2. Great post. I always enjoy your Grammar Mondays! Excellent examples here, and I do think it's easiest to mess up with first person.

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  3. I need to bookmark this because I'm sure I'm all over the map!

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    1. I have to watch mine, too.
      Come back next week for part II. ;)

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  4. Yes! I see this all the time when I'm doing critiques. Thanks for the examples! :)

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    1. You definitely keep your writers on their toes. *walks off muttering something about a wolf* (kidding :P)

      Seriously - that's why critters and editors are so important. They catch these errors before our stories are out there for all the world to see. ;)

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  5. I'm guilty of time travel when not paying attention too. Got to add this to my forever growing list of things I need to watch out for... (:

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    1. We are all guilty of this one at times. I get caught, too. ;)

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  6. OMGosh, I am soooo saving this one :)

    If there are (is?) (was?? :) one mistake I repeat a lot, it's keeping things in the same tense.

    Know what I meant?

    *Thanks* for sharing :)

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    1. LOL - Glad you found it helpful.
      Thanks for visiting. :)

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  7. I love technical posts like this! I've recently started writing everything in present tense... and I love it so much more. It was a surprisingly easy change! Tense hasn't ever been hard for me, but I have had to double check a few times--like when it's in present, but the MC's talking in the past, only to transition back to present. If that makes sense, LOL. :)

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    1. Can you keep a secret? Since I scheduled this post, I started a new WIP...in first person present tense. LOL Can I do it? We'll see... ;)

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  8. I always struggle with tense, but multiple revisions usually help weed out time travel issues! :-)

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  9. This is why I'm thankful for my Grammar Diva critique buddy... I don't do it often, but it happens and she catches it.

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    1. Yes - A good critter is worth their weight in gold. ;)

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  10. I swear I'm generally good with this, but apparently when I write 1st-person I flop out entirely. I guess I default 1st-person in present tense, but the book I just drafted I wanted in past-tense. Alpha readers have told me I'm changing tenses in mid-sentence all over the place. THAT is going to be fun to fix...

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    1. Good luck! :)

      I'm trying my hand at first person and started the new WIP out in past tense, but I was having trouble. I revised it into present tense and it's going better.

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  11. Great post! I always have trouble figuring out whether or not to use had before my verbs in flashbacks!

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    1. Thanks. I'm saving that for another post. It's kinda complicated. :\

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