The Past and the Present

boromir

Ok, so here’s a revelation: unlike every other language in the world, the English language has only  two tense forms. Past and present.

An example of past tense: The girl walked to the shop.

An example of present tense: The girl walks to the shop.

Simple, no? But wait, you say, what about all those other tenses that put fine shades of meaning to our deathless prose? Future? Conditional? Surely they are there, I’ve used them myself!

Yes, they are, but they use the past and present forms. English expresses the other tenses by the use of auxiliary verbs. So the future tense is formed by adding the auxiliary verb will to the present tense.  She will walk to the shop.

There are arguably (and that’s one of the things I love about the English language, that people can actually argue about the grammar of it) eighteen English tenses:

  1. Present simple. She walks.
  2. Present continuous. She is walking.
  3. Past simple. She walked.
  4. Past continuous. She was walking.
  5. Present perfect simple. She has walked.
  6. Present perfect continuous. She has been walking.
  7. Past perfect simple. She had walked.
  8. Past perfect continuous. She had been walking.
  9. Future simple. She will walk.
  10. Future continuous. She will be walking.
  11. Future perfect simple. She will have walked.
  12. Future perfect continuous. She will have been walking.
  13. Conditional simple. She could/would  walk.
  14. Conditional continuous. She could/would be walking.
  15. Conditional perfect simple. She could/would have walked.
  16. Conditional perfect continuous. She could/would have been walking.
  17. Imperative. Walk!
  18. Infinitive. To walk is a pleasant activity.

Notice something? All of the tenses are based on just two forms of the verb. Walk and walked. With a host of auxiliary verbs such as has, have, been, will, be, could, etc these two forms create all the other tenses.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “but there is a third tense form in that list. The  -ing form.”

Well, yes, there is. But actually, no, there isn’t. Walked is the past tense, but walking is…well, what is it?

The  – ing form is the present participle. English has two tenses and two participles. With a regular verb, like walk, the past tense is formed by adding -ed. Walked. But with an irregular verb, like sing, things get more complicated.

Walk (Regular verb)

Present tense: Walk (I walk)

Past tense: Walked (Yesterday I walked)

Present participle: Walking (I am walking)

Past participle: Walked (I had walked)

Sing (Irregular verb)

Present tense: Sing (I sing)

Past tense: Sang (Yesterday I sang)

Present participle: Singing ( I am singing)

Past participle: Sung (I had sung)

So we use the auxiliary verbs with the participles. Of course, with regular verbs the past participle is the same as the past tense. But not with the irregular verbs. And there are many  irregular verbs in English.

So, you know all this. Or at least, you do because you get the tenses right every day, you just don’t know the grammatical mechanics behind it all. So what’s my point?

For some reason, some writers want to write in the present tense.

Why? This tendency seems particularly endemic to YA and teen writing. But it has crept (creeps/is creeping/has been creeping/will have crept…another beautifully irregular verb) into other demographics as well.

It’s actually harder to write in the present tense than in the past. So why do it? To make the action more immediate, I hear some writers say. How is it more immediate? I just don’t get it.

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but present tense writing smacks of pretension in my opinion, except when used for specific effect. For instance, I’ve used present tense to describe a dream sequence. It is also used in dialogue. A lot of dialogue is in present tense except during recount.

But it’s worse than just my opinion. As a teacher I’ve noticed that many students today think that you are supposed to write in the present tense. Or, even worse, they get confused and start writing in the past tense, switch to the present and then back again. Even the other tenses get mixed up because kids these days see present and past tense writing used so randomly.

So stop it guys! Use it for special effect, like a dream sequence, but not otherwise. I know, Charlotte Bronte slips into present tense occasionally in Jane Eyre, and then back to past, but she was Charlotte Bronte.

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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