Are you tense over your verbs?

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Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

You probably learned the difference between past, present and future in preschool. But how hard do you think about tense when you’re writing? Perhaps, not hard enough….

I am fascinated by tense. Not becoming tense, of course. Just tense.

What do I mean? Well, tense is a set of forms taken by verbs (the action words in any sentence) to show the time and sometimes also the continuance or completeness of the action. Here are three super easy examples:

I sing. (Simple present tense)

I sang. (Simple past tense)

I will sing some more. (Simple future tense)

Of course there are many more tenses beyond these three. In fact, there are nine forms of the past tense alone. And here is an even more complete table of tenses. (Feeling any tension yet?)

Choosing a tense for your writing can sometimes seem as daunting as picking either a  life or a business partner.

As a former journalist, I declare myself guilty of frequently advising others to select the present tense over the past. There’s something immediate and compelling about it. It’s like putting orange dinner napkins on the dining room table. Or running a live-camera TV show. Or listening to some dance music on your iPod. It conveys a sense of immediacy. It energizes readers. It makes them sit up and pay attention.

But there are some downsides as well. The present tense can seem too showy and obvious. It can also become tedious and overwrought, almost like a parody: Fred sees the angry buyer hurl the purchase to the floor and starts to wonder, “Is my company doing enough to improve product development?”

My more recent advice? Think hard about tense before you start writing. Make a choice. Don’t let it choose you! One of the best ways to do this is to pick a piece of writing that you think particularly fine – and that provides a good model for you, and spend five minutes copying it (I mean that literally) before you write.

One of my new non-fiction models is Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit. Why? I bought his book as a hardcover (something I almost never do) on the strength of an utterly compelling excerpt in my daily newspaper. Here are two paragraphs from that except, about the training of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps:

When Phelps was a teenager, for instance, at the end of each practice, Bowman would tell him to go home and “watch the videotape. Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up.”

The videotape wasn’t real. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling sleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly.”

I really like Duhigg’s writing and it’s occurred to me that perhaps he has something to teach me about tense. It’s interesting to me that these two paragraphs – which I found so captivating – are filled with the conditional, a tense I normally decry.

As a result, I’m re-evaluating my views of tense, and I suggest you do the same. I can’t give you a “rule” because there is no right or a wrong answer. It’s a matter of taste.

One question I can answer, however, is that it’s perfectly okay – sometimes even necessary – to switch tense mid-story. While every piece needs a “base” tense in which it is situated, you also need to be able to talk about earlier and later actions. For example:

The vice-president resigned. An hour later, the media would pummel him with questions.

Do you see how  your “base” tense (“resigned”) is the past? To show something that’s happening in the future of that, you need to switch tenses to, wait for it, the conditional.

Ironic, for me, because I’ve habitually disliked the conditional. But that’s a gut reaction – not a carefully considered one. Indeed, I realize, despite more than 30 years of writing I haven’t developed the habit of thinking carefully about tenses.

Perhaps we could develop the habit together?

Do you have a favourite tense for writing? Or perhaps you have some questions relating to tense? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

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