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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Voice that is Passive

 

My students have been told by me to avoid the passive voice when writing. Weaker sentences are those that are written passively. More effectiveness and control are possible by sentences that are active. Following the subject with a verb is the more active way of writing and is a sign of more consideration on the part of the writer. This whole article was going to be written by me using the passive voice. It was found, however, that a strain on me was caused by doing so.

So I’ll stop now.

What is the passive voice? Well, English grammar has two ways of writing a sentence. The first, and most common, is ACTIVE. This is where the sentence follows the structure: Subject – Verb – Object.

The dog bit the man is active voice. The dog (subject) bit (verb) the man.

PASSIVE voice turns things around. In passive, the object of the sentence becomes the subject. The man was bitten by the dog.

So what’s the difference? Well, it all depends on what the focus of the sentence is. In The dog bit the man, the important noun in the sentence is the dog. In The man was bitten by the dog, we are more focused by the man. In the first, active, sentence, we are interested in the dog and its doings – in the second, passive, sentence, the man is our concern. Imagine someone asked a question:

‘I saw Bill walking around with a bandage on his leg. What happened to him?’

‘He was bitten by a dog.’

Contrast that with:

‘Why does Bill have a bandage on his leg?’

‘A dog bit him.’

Both are valid responses. However, the first is more focussed on Bill from the start. In the second, the focus starts with Bill but the responder to the question is changing the focus to the dog, perhaps in order to emphasise the cause of the accident rather than its consequences.

And therein lies the difference between active and passive voice. Active, the pedants say, is stronger than passive. In writing, there is less need for passive voice. Readers respond better to active, strong, positive statements.

True, they do. But there is no need to throw out the passive voice entirely. it’s used a lot in business documents, for instance and in informative writing, or where it is not necessary to state the doer of the action, or the doer is not known or relevant.

The verb of a sentence is active when the subject of the sentence does the action:

Mary had a little lamb.

The passive tells us what happens or is being done to the subject:

The lamb was owned by Mary.

 

If the doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant, passive also has a role:

He was run over.

Or:

The song was sung.

So don’t abandon the passive voice entirely. It does have a stigma attached to it, but it is still a vlaid form of communication.

 

– Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

 

In Defence of Adverbs

Horror writer Stephen King would have us get rid of adverbs. He hates them. He considers them timid writing. And to some extent, he’s right. Of course, he’s sold a gazillion books and has the perfect right to tell other people how to write. I’m not denying that. But I’m not sure he is totally correct on this score. You can’t eschew all adverbs in your writing.

So, for those who aren’t quite sure what an adverb is, let me explain.

An adverb is a category of word that modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Many adverbs in English end in -ly. Many don’t. For example, adverbs ending in -ly include:

quickly, firmly, silently, appropriately, suddenly, sadly, wearily, etc.

Adverbs that don’t end in -ly are sneakier. They creep into our writing when we don’t even know they are adverbs.

afterward, already, almost, even, often , more, near, too, etc. Even malapropos.

If we follow Stephen King’s advice, we must dispense with the sneaky adverbs as well as the -ly ones. But looking at a list of sneaky ones, that would be difficult. They are just so damned useful.

The problem is exacerbated when you consider that adverbs aren’t always just one word. There are adverbial phrases and clauses, groups of words that together do the work of an adverb. For example, in the sentence, He ran as if his life depended on it, everything in bold is an adverbial phrase, telling the reader how he ran. And not a -ly to be seen anywhere,

Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. But it’s just an example.

So what do we do? Can we never use an adverb? Well, my opinion is we shouldn’t use them too much, but we shouldn’t avoid them altogether (altogether is an adverb). Stephen King declared the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Good for him.

Too much of anything is bad for you. Too much water, too much oxygen, too much red meat, too much running, too much work. Even too much Penfolds Grange 1956, although that last one is hard to believe. The point is, using adverbs without being judicious about it (that’s an adverbial clause by the way) does constitute what King refers to as fearful writing. A writer who fears, he claims, uses adverbs as a prop for their writing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all.

It all goes back to “show, don’t tell”. Your writing should show how something is done, without you having to tell us. Adding an adverb to tell us how someone says something, for instance, is a lazy way of doing it.

“Don’t you dare!” she shouted angrily. In this sentence, the word angrily tells us how she shouted. It’s a classic use of an adverb. But the context of the sentence should show us the speaker is angry without having her anger pointed out to us.

This is a fair enough criticism. But like all rules, there are exceptions. The judicious use of adverbs where they add something to the sentence should not, in my opinion, be avoided. Adverbs are words. There are lots of them, and they deserve a place in writing.

For example, take my own sentence above: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. Now, this contains an adverb: probably. Its job is to modify the compound verb should be avoided to show the degree of advisability of avoiding the use of a cliché. In that sense, it creates modality. If I was to avoid the use of the word, what are my options?

I could delete it altogether. The sentence then becomes Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should be avoided for that reason anyway. But that allows no modality; my advice becomes a command to avoid the cliché and allows no exceptions. Probably (damn – there is it again!) a bit strong. I could use other modal words, or a modal phrase. The trouble is, modal words are adverbs and adverbial phrases. That’s what modality is.

Alternatively (another adverb! Heavens!) I could give a reason why it’s best to avoid clichés: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché, and should be avoided for that reason anyway, since clichés are also an example of lazy writing. The trouble is, this still allows for no modality.

Adverbs have purpose. They are useful. They have a job to do. So avoiding them totally is not correct advice.

Don’t overuse them. Avoid them when modifying dialogue (but not always – even here they are useful). But feel free to plant a well-chosen, effective adverb within your writing when the need arises.