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Grammar Police Monday - Verb Tense: It's All Relative

This is a continuation of last week's lesson on verb tense. Today we're going to delve a little deeper—make that way deeper—into the issue. But, basically, the concept is the same. Verb tense is relative. Pay attention to the tense you're writing 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.

Last week I mentioned basic conjugation, including past participle. For the infinitive 'to play,' that would be has/had played. I've noticed writers seem to make more errors when using past participleboth with regular and irregular verbs. One situation that often leads to an error is combining a contraction with one of these verbs. Let me show you what I mean.

Mary was angry at herself. She'd gave in so easily.
Mary was angry at herself. She'd given in so easily.

In the above example, the second version is correct. The contraction she'd in its expanded form is she had, and the action happened farther in the past than this past tense story, so the past participle form of the infinitive 'to give' (had given) is the correct choice. The point I'm trying to make is we should pay extra attention to our writing when we venture into past participle, but especially if the have or had that comes before the main verb is part of a contraction.

Now let's touch on some verb tenses beyond the basic present, past & past participle. Before you can decide which tense to use, you have to know your options. Keep in mind, not all of these will apply to every story. It depends on which basic tense you choose. 

**Feel free to skim to the next red cue if this gets too intense.  
Yes, you read that right. I'm giving you permission to skim! :D 
This is a lot of info to take in at once, and I will summarize 
the main concept at the end of this post.**

One comment before I get startedI'll show these tenses in the positive form, but you can make them negative by adding the word not to the verb phrase. 

Ex: I will be going becomes I will not be going

Here we go...

Present Continuous (or progressive):
Use this tense to describe something that is happening continuously right now, or will be for a short time. It is constructed by adding a simple present form of the infinitive to be (is, am, are) to an -ing verb. (Pam is sleeping.  We are eatingSally is staying with her aunt this week.)

Past Continuous:
This is similar to the above, but with past tense verbs. It is used for continuous action in the past that is interrupted by another action (Pam was sleeping when the phone rang.), actions that happened at the same time (Sally was reading, and Mary was watching TV.), to give background or additional information (The day we went, the sun was shining and a cool breeze was blowing.), and for repeated, often annoying actions (My ex-roommate was always leaving the cap off the toothpaste.).

Future Continuous:
This is for continuous actions that will happen or be interrupted in the future. It is constructed with will + be + -ing verb. (I will be sleeping when you get off work, so slide the check under the door. The mayor will be making an announcement later today.)

Present Perfect:
This one is confusing because is takes past participle form, but it is used for unfinished actions (I have lived in Texas all my life. I still live there.), things that have been going on for a period of time (She has had diabetes for three years. He's known Nancy since 1995.), and finished actions that are either life experiences (I have been to London and Paris.), have a result in the present (I've lost my purse.), or are followed by a word that denotes an unfinished time period (I've been to the mall three times this month.).

Past Perfect:
This tense also uses the past participle form (had ___ ). Basically, this tense is used to give a reason for something in the past or to describe something that was completed before or happened up until something else. (It had snowed heavily, so school was cancelled.  The food had been served when we arrived.  By the time I found a job, I had been unemployed for five years.)

Future Perfect:
This tense combines the future tense of have, will have, and the past participle form of the main verb. (Ex: will have played) It isn't common, and it is often accompanied by the word by. (He will have managed the office for a decade by the time he's forty-five.)

Now it really gets fun. Not.

Present Perfect Continuous:
This is used for unfinished actions that started in the past and continue to the present, or for actions that just stopped and have a result, or are part of a larger, unfinished action. Note the -ing ending on the main verb. (She has been waiting for Mr Right for years. I have been working all night, and I'm tired.)

Past Perfect Continuous
This tense is formed by adding the past participle of the infinitive to be to the -ing form of the main verb. (Ex: had been living)  Past Perfect Continuous tense is used the same way as its present tense counterpart above, but when past tense is needed. (She had been waiting for Mr Right for years. I had been working all night, and I was tired.)

Future Perfect Continuous
This tense isn't used much, but it is good to know in case you encounter it or need to use it. It includes a time reference and indicates an action which will begin in the future and continue up to that time. (As of noon today, I will have been working on this blog post for five hours.) :P

** You can stop skimming now. **

Using tense in fiction writing:
How do you make use of all this information? First, you take into account what tense your writing in, and then you use the proper tense when describing events that happened at a different time to show how they relate to that. I wasn't kidding when I said verb tense is relative.

First person present tense example:
I walk along the beach, gazing at the moon and wishing I had a man to share this moment with me. I have been waiting for Mr Right for years.

Third person past tense example:
Beth walked along the beach, gazing at the moon and wishing she had a man to share this moment with her. She had been waiting for Mr Right for years.

Now let's dissect them...
I walk (simple present) along the beach, gazing at the moon and wishing I had a man to share this moment with me (compound participle phrase indicating simultaneous, ongoing action). I have been waiting (present perfect continuous) for Mr Right for years.

Beth walked (simple past) along the beach, gazing at the moon and wishing she had a man to share this moment with her (compound participle phrase indicating simultaneous, ongoing action). She had been waiting (past perfect continuous) for Mr Right for years. 

Bottom line: you don't have to memorize all the verb tense names. You just have to know how to construct your sentences so that both the sequence, relation, and time of occurrence of the actions are clear. 

I hope I didn't give you a headache with this long, tedious post, but now we can say we've thoroughly covered verb tense. I hope you found something helpful. Thanks for stopping by. :)


  1. We both know my method when it comes to these things: the taste test. I say it out loud a few times and if it sounds right, I go with it. *Grins*

    Great post, Melissa!

    1. And your method works...most of the time. :P
      Thanks! :)

    2. And when it doesn't, you're there! ;)

  2. My son actually *thanked* me one day several years ago for insisting that he speak correctly. He did very well in high school English "without having to understand why." We laughed at the time, but it's so true. If you use the language correctly you can rely on Carrie's "taste test" to know if you write it correctly. :)

    1. Truer words were never spoken! My mom would second that, too. LOL

      Although I don't speak as properly as I write, I do make the effort to follow the rules and correct my kids when they misspeak. I saw the same phenomenon as you when my two homeschooled children did their grammar lessons--especially the ones on irregular verbs. They naturally chose the right answer most of the time. ;)

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

  3. Oh my gosh! I swear, I can find answers to everything on your blog! I love it! Whenever I come up with a question along these lines, I always think of you and your blog! So much great information!

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful! :D

      For visitor convenience, there's a page on my blog that lists all the GPM posts with links >>>

  4. Can I just say I'm glad I'm a native English speaker? XD

    1. Oh, no doubt! And I thought conjugating Spanish verbs was difficult... xD

      Thanks for visiting. :)

  5. I had no idea there were so many different tenses! We read them in books all the time, but I never stopped to think about the fact that they all have definitive titles. :-)

    1. Me neither! I wasn't kidding when I said this grammar post took several hours to construct. :D

  6. You didn't give me a headache but whew! That was (pardon the pun) tense. It's good to have some background on this stuff. I know how to use grammar (mostly), and it's nice to know why.

  7. I love this. I need to print this out and keep it on my desk! Thanks!

  8. This is why I struggle with tense issues. So many ways of writing something that seem very close to correct :) You are so good at this stuff!

    1. Ha! I referenced several sources when building this post. I do NOT have this stuff committed to memory. LOL :D

  9. Thanks for a great site. I found you on WANATribe and read your posts about commas. They've changed the rules since I was in high school umpteen years ago. Your posts have been bookmarked for future reference.

    I was taught to use correct verb tenses and taught my children also. I cringe when I hear or see incorrect tenses. Thank you for helping people understand these often confusing issues.

    I'll keep following your blog.

    Sophie Dawson

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Sophie. You made my day. :)

  10. I believe I have a pretty good grasp on using proper tense. I don't think of it much while writing and don't usually notice any errors when reviewing what I have written. If I see it in someone else's writing I can sometimes catch it, but I can also be a fairly careless reader. An editor I'm not.

    Wrote By Rote

    1. It's always easier to catch stuff in other people's writing. We know what ours should say and skim right over it.

      Thanks for visiting, Arlee. :)

  11. Great post Melissa! Tense shifts can be so confusing. :)


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