Earlier today I almost wrote the words ‘you need to keep a consistent tense’ but stopped myself. I sat back and thought about what that really meant. My understanding of grammar let me know there are quite a few tenses and I knew that some sentences can be written with more than one historical point of reference. For example,
“I fell down the stairs and saw him running away.” – I instantly recognised that there are three verbs, two in the past but one whose tense is not as clear cut. I had a faint memory of past participles and past continuous verbs etc. but it dawned on me that out of all the many tenses that exist in English not only was I not consciously aware of the rules that govern them but I could not comfortably say what tenses were and were not allowed to be combined. It was just some internal and instinctive passive knowledge of what sounds ‘right’ that guided me. I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t really offer clear cut advice.
So I decided to do some digging and what follows is everything I learnt. It’s not perfect but I learned something and I hope it can act as a readily available on-wikia source of my language’s ridiculous tense system. So let’s start.
Right so time exists and moves from the past to the future. All actions can be classified as having occurred in either the past, present, or future. Our language reflects this by possessing "tenses" which indicate when the action is occurring. Tenses are applied directly to the verb’s morphology. English has two tenses, not three (people got quite angry about this on various forums). We use auxillary verbs to denote the future tense and don’t directly alter the verb’s morphology. So the way that English refers to the future is through the use of means other than verb tense; nonetheless it’s important to understand that grammatically tense refers to the morphology of the verb, and aspect and form are applied to the tense to inform other things.
Let’s start with the basics of tense. In English there are two tenses that affect verb morphology. Past and Present.
Present tense: I steal teeth.
Past tense: I stole a tooth.
Simple, right? Well, on top of these tenses we apply things like aspect, form, mood etc. Aspect is the grammatical category that lets us know how the verb extends over time. This is very important. When you write fiction you can write in either the past or present tense. That offers you the point of reference. In present tense the point of reference is the same as the time when the words were written. In past tense the point of reference is more malleable but you define it distinctly. You say to the reader: There is a point in time when these words were written, and these words describe a specific period of time. The reader is here now, the writer is writing sometime in the past, and the words they describe are relevant to a point in time prior to when those words were written.
You are reading this blog now. I wrote it sometime earlier today, and it describes things I learned yesterday. Before you write you’re going to want to think about the equivalent points in time for your story.
There are four aspects; simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous (progressive is also used in America in place of continuous but I’ll be sticking to continuous for simplicity).
Let’s list them one more time.
Each of these can be applied to one of the two tenses I described above.
Present Simple – I run to the store – This is often used to refer to a habitual behaviour e.g. I smoke cigarettes and drive too fast.
Present Continuous – I am running to the store – This is generally used to refer to something happening at the time of writing e.g. I am dying, but I have to tell you about the monster in the attic.
Present Perfect – I have smoked crack - This refers to actions that have started in the past but not ceased at the time of writing (I have given up), or wherein the exact time period is not important other than it has occurred generally in the past (I have studied Japanese), to denote a specific period of time (I have lived in France for six years). It is also often combined with "just" to let us know when an action was just finished (I have just made myself food), and to denote an action that has been repeated often in the past (I have seen him a lot lately).
Present Perfect Continuous – I have been puncturing tyres – This is used to refer to a behaviour that started in the past and has just recently finished. It is typically used to denote a period of time e.g. I have been writing for several hours—or—how long have you been playing games?
Past Simple – I punched a camel – typical uses for this include describing a single event that occurred in the past, or referring to a habitual experience (e.g. I punched a camel yesterday) but with the right verbs can also denote a specific state (e.g. I knew punching camels would backfire).
Past Continuous – I was punching a camel – This is used to let us know an action was occurring at the same time as the point of reference in the past (e.g. I was running away when the camel's owner finally caught me.)
Past Perfect – I had punched a camel – This is used to describe an event that occurred before the period of time under consideration (e.g. I had punched a camel and was very tired).
Past Perfect Continuous - I had been punching camels – this refers to a behaviour that began prior to the point of reference being described, and had just recently finished. (e.g. I had been punching a camel when I was interrupted by the furious camel herder).
Right so a general pattern we’re seeing is that tenses and aspects inform us about when an action started and when it stopped. And the major difference between past and present tense is the point of reference for the reader. This starts to give us an insight into why tense consistency is important. The reader’s point of reference is defined by the tense and aspect. Messing with it forces the reader to move from place to place and jump around and that ruins any sense of flow and consistency.
I will not be going into too much detail with regards to the future (it’s rarely the style chosen in fiction), but it does exist it just requires you to apply the above aspects to the auxillary verb. A quick run-down is as follows:
Simple Future – I will run this company into the ground – generally describes some fact the narrator believes about the future
Future Continuous – I will be running the company into the ground in a few years – an event will be in progress at the point of reference which is in the future.
Future perfect – I will have run this company into the ground by the time anyone catches me – an event has occurred in the past relative to the point of the reference which is in the future.
Future perfect continuous – I will have been charged with many crimes before I reveal the truth – this tells us an event has recently concluded at the point of reference, and is also used to tell us about a period of time e.g I will have been dead for eight hours when they find the body.
Moods are used to tell us about the writer’s opinion or attitude towards the verb. There are three moods in English made by changing the verb; indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. There are two other moods that are super important called the "conditional mood" and the "emphatic mood" but they are not indicated using verb morphology.
Subjunctive – described as a linguistic fossil, this is usually used to discuss imaginary/hypothetical events or express an opinion. It’s archaic enough you won’t need to know it but you’ll recognise it a lot in pirate talk e.g. If he be a real man he’ll punch that funny bloke with a yellow wig.
Or for the past subjunctive: “If he were a real man he would have punched that funny bloke with a yellow wig.”
Imperative – this is used to express a command. “Punch that man in the face!” “Do your homework!” “Put that child down!” and so on. Importantly it should be noted that you almost always imply the second person ‘you’ in these sentences barring one example; “let’s” or “let us” e.g. “let’s punch that bigot in the face”.
Indicative – This is used to state a fact and is the "default" mood. In other words if you write a sentence in past simple, or past present tense, then it’s already in the indicative mood. E.g. “John is feeding that kangaroo” or “John feeds all the marsupials around here”.
Emphatic Mood – this is formed by combining the verb "to do" in either past or present tense with the base form of the verb. For example:
I do hate that man – emphatic present
I did hate that man – emphatic past.
It’s used, unsurprisingly, to denote emphasis. As in “Oh I do hate euthanizing cats.”
Conditional Mood – this is formed by using one of the following auxillary words – could, should, would & might. These words are typically combined with the perfect aspect to create the conditional perfect mood. E.g. I could have, should have, would have, might have. This refers to a hypothetical event with reference to the past e.g. I could have run if I hadn’t broken my leg. I should have remembered that the window was on the third floor. I would have fled if my bones were still inside my body. I might have avoided my fate if I’d not been distracted by that man punching a camel.
You can also use conditional moods with the simple present tense to denote capacity (I could punch Trump), intent (I would punch Trump), and obligation (I should punch Trump) as well as possibility (I might punch Trump). To make it worse each of the auxillary words can be expressed in present tense (can, shall, will, may) e.g. I can jump really high. I shall jump out of this window. I will probably regret jumping out of this window. I may have a bad day now that I've jumped out of that window.
There are two more tenses we need to cover, and another part of the English language called "voice". Let’s cover the tenses.
Past habitual – I used to drink human blood – refers to a habit you once had but have now stopped.
Immediate future – I am about to try a much less healthy alternative – refers to something that is going to happen in the immediate future.
Active voice – I drank lighter fluid.
Passive voice – The lighter fluid was consumed by me.
Voice contd. – Voice is a crazy thing. A sentence at its bare minimum is composed of a subject and a verb. E.g. I punch. But most sentences add an object too. The object is what the verb is acting upon. E.g. I (subject of the sentence) punch (verb) Trump (object). An active voice goes subject, verb, action. But a passive voice puts the object at the start and focuses on that. It’s generally disliked (for reasons beyond me) but the passive voice does have a role in writing. It can be used to create a sense of agency where there is none. Newspapers love this trick. “Woman killed by man” and “Man kills woman” have been shown to produce subtly different effects in readers; personally I believe a writer is free to use any and all tools at their disposal but convention holds you try to avoid the passive voice.
I’m not doing the maths, but consider that you can combine the 2 tenses, 2 voices and 4 aspects to create sixteen separate and distinct tenses before approaching mood and modalities. Would it surprise you to know that the overall figure is estimated to fall somewhere between 80 and 100 total tenses? No one quite knows because certain things are contentious (should we count the archaic subjunctive mood?) and some tenses just spring up out of nowhere (like the habitual tense).
But here’s the gist of it: When you write you need a clear sense of the timeline. And you need to be aware that the many different forms, aspects, moods and tenses exist to convey very specific qualities about when an action is taking place. Let’s look at an altered example from a recent story I read.
I decided to go home. No, I can't be alone with myself at my house. I'd rather stay at my mother’s.
We have past simple, present simple, and conditional present. The point of reference shifts from the past to the present, the result is a distinct shift that just doesn’t sound right and is confusing. We move from the past when a decision was made, to the present tense at the moment of writing.
We were forbidden from eating the fruit he has laid out for us.
Again we shift from past continuous to present perfect. We move from a point of reference in the past to one at the moment of writing. Specifically the present perfect tense not only places the point of reference in the present, but the events it describes occur in the past (he has laid). We’re moving from the past to the present and then being asked to look back to an indiscriminate point in the past. Unsurprisingly this feels terrible for the reader.
In conclusion – I have learned a lot going over all this and it is not a comprehensive guide to every last single tense. Still, I am left with a distinct appreciation for people who are not native-born English speakers but can read and write English fluently. I’m also in awe at just how complicated these rules are. I have never been consciously aware of the tenses but have been subconsciously following them without giving it a moment’s notice. I think this is fascinating. I think it’s important to appreciate that errors are common but the basic rule remains the same; think and plan your story’s timeline and bear it in mind when writing.