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Verbs Making You Tense?

Try This Tip For a Little Relief

As I have edited the works of many other writers in my time, I often come across verb discrepancies within them that need to be addressed before anything else can be accomplished. A lot of new writers (and even seasoned ones) have a nasty habit of switching from one verb tense to another during the course of a piece, and I have to tell them to pick a verb tense and stick to it.

To make this task easier, I've provided a verb guide, which I will demonstrate by writing an example verb in each tense so you can see how it works. Before creating an individual story, a writer must first determine if it takes place in the past, the present, or the future, and also which pronoun set they will use within the work, and then stick to their decision. For the sake of clarification, here are some examples using different verbs and pronouns:

I will say this; my future looks bleak. I sit here daily wondering what will happen to me, where I will be ten years from now, and I cannot fathom what might change to improve it.

This is first person present tense discussing the future. Notice the verb "to be" is futurized anywhere you're talking about the future, but that you put "to sit" in its present tense when discussing a current event happening in the present. To futurize it, you'd say "I will sit here daily".

You take my breath away each time I see your face. There is no greater pleasure for me than to see you in this place.

Present tense, first person. It's only "second" person if you say "you take one's breath away whenever they see your face" and/or remove any reference to the self in the work. If you use I at all, it's first person.

He looked upon the assembly with a quivering belly, uncertain where to begin. Should he tell them of his plans, or leave them in the dark?

Third person, past tense referring to a possible future event. Third person past tense is considered a "standard" in the writing of most people, and the one I suggest beginners use because there are so many examples of it they can examine.

He had once believed in miracles, but that belief had dimmed over time as so many opportunities for such things passed by unnoticed in his life.

This is a third person past tense also discussing an event that occurred in the past of the subject. Notice that when in past tense speaking of a past even further back you use "to have" in the form of "has had" and if you were to then speak of the current situation he's in using the past tense, you would remove "has had", but all verbs are expected to use -ed on the end either way. If you're writing about the past and your verb doesn't have -ed on the end of it, you should be checking for usage or a better verb to replace it with.

We stood waiting as the street car rolled into view, filling the platform with its presence.

This is first person past tense. You can discern this by use of the verb "to stand" being used in its past tense form even though the other words used -ing. Note that "waiting" and "filling" are used to tell the reader what the people are currently doing within the past tense. This is not necessarily the only way it could be done. You could instead use -ed to end each verb like this: "We stood and waited as the street car rolled into view and filled" or this: "We waited as the street car rolled into view. It filled"

My personal style is annoyed by the overuse of the word "and" within a sentence, so I would not write it in that manner. Changing the sentence up to avoid overuse of a word, or to avoid starting a new paragraph using the same word more than twice in a row, is called "poetic license" and will not be frowned upon by an editor if the writer does not overuse the technique. With this in mind, I would likely break the sentence up like this:

We stood beside the platform and watched as the street car rolled into view. It loomed closer as we waited, filling the area with its imposing presence.

So, here's the drill. You need to know at all times which verb to put where. Here's a handy guide that may help you with that:

VERB: to walk, PRONOUN: first person

Present tense first person discussing a current action: I walk;
Present tense first person discussing a past action: I walked;
Present tense first person discussing a future action: I will walk;
Past tense first person discussing a current action: I walked;
Past tense first person discussing a past action: I had walked;
Past tense first person discussing a future action: I would be walking;
Future tense first person discussing a current action: I will be walking;
Future tense first person discussing a past action: I had been walking;
Future tense first person discussing a future action: I am going to be walking;

VERB: to walk, PRONOUN: second person

Present tense second person discussing a current action: you walk;
Present tense second person discussing a past action: you walked;
Present tense second person discussing a future action: you will walk;
Past tense second person discussing a current action: you walked;
Past tense second person discussing a past action: you had walked;
Past tense second person discussing a future action: you would be walking;
Future tense second person discussing a current action: you will be walking;
Future tense second person discussing a past action: you had been walking;
Future tense second person discussing a future action: you are going to be walking;

VERB: to walk, PRONOUN: third person

Present tense third person discussing a current action: she walks;
Present tense third person discussing a past action: she walked;
Present tense third person discussing a future action: she will walk;
Past tense third person discussing a current action: she walked;
Past tense third person discussing a past action: she had walked;
Past tense third person discussing a future action: she would be walking;
Future tense third person discussing a current action: she will be walking;
Future tense third person discussing a past action: she had been walking;
Future tense third person discussing a future action: she is going to be walking;

To use this guide, select the verb and pronoun that fits the situation and use the form indicated.

Here is an example with incorrectly used verbs. It began in third person past tense so it should be using verbs throughout that match this style. This type of verb tense makes it easy to spot the incorrect usage because of the lack of an -ed ending on the verbs in question:

Arnold Farley sorted through the huge stack of papers he found on his desk. This isn't what he wants to be doing, so he is very bored. He took this job to pay the bills, but now that he's been here for a while he wishes he'd never done it.

Okay, where do you see trouble here?

He sorted, this isn't what he wants, he is, he took, he has been, he wishes.

If this story is supposed to be third person past, you look at each of these verbs on the guide and use the suggested forms within the third person past examples:

He sorted, this wasn't what he wanted (or "had wanted" if you're referring to his past desires within the past tense), he was, he had been, he wished.

Note the use of "had been" is a description of a past occurrence described within the past tense, rather than a current event being described within the past tense. The reader needs to be able to distinguish the difference, so the writer must use "had been" to show it.

There are a couple other nitpicks I have with this example in particular, one of which is the use of "to be doing". A good writer wants to avoid -ing endings of verbs within this tense because usually they turn up being passive verbs, so I would personally change it to: "this wasn't what he wanted to do with his life." That fixes the verb nicely, but also clarifies what he's discussing--his life--as opposed to some ambiguous thing instead.

So, I hope this helps a bit. Head on over to something you've written and fix just the verbs, and you'll discover the writing dramatically improves just from that one action alone. And while you're at it, go ahead and examine the verbs you are using: did you select the verb which best actively describes the action going on in the sentence? Here's a few pointers:

He went and sat down on the bench, kicking up his feet and smiling hopefully at the woman, as though asking her to join him there.

Okay, my editorial senses have been assaulted here just writing that crap. Yikes! Let's try this instead:

He sauntered over and flung himself down on the bench, feet propped up as he cast the woman a hopeful smile, willing her to join him.

What did I just do here? I described the manner in which he walked, did it using -ed verbs as the verb tense requires, showed the attitude he had as he put up his feet, and imposed emotion and desire into the way he invited her to join him. And I did it all with the same number of words. It's just that the words each packed a much bigger punch.

Notice how in the first example you had a vague idea of action, while in the second you can literally see the man's motion and attitude, and even feel his hopefulness along with him. That is what you want your writing to deliver--the most bang it can using the least number of words required.

If your writing suffers from a lack of readability or seems to sag, changing passive verbs into active ones should spruce it up nicely. Go ahead and give it a try, and you'll soon wonder why you would ever write that first sentence with so many better options to choose from, too.

Good luck, and I hope this article was helpful for you in your writing endeavors.