Tag Archives: writing

Sequence of Tenses

Today’s topic is sequence of tenses. That’s a fancy name for rules governing verbs – such as when you use past tense (went, liked, saw) and when you use past-perfect tense (had gone, had liked, had seen).

In conversation, you’re probably not going to pay much attention to the rules I’ll be reviewing. (At least I don’t.) Sequence of tenses starts to become important when you want to showcase your skill and precision for a professional writing task.

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: You should use the same tense for all the verbs in a sentence. No, no, no. It’s perfectly ok to mix verb tenses.

Take a look at these examples. (All are correct.)

My doctor told me that headaches are a possible side effect of the medication. (told is past, are is present)  CORRECT

The meteorologist said the storm will be over by 8:30. (said is past, will be is future)  CORRECT

Joe recommended taking Central Boulevard because it tends to be quiet this time of day.  (recommended is past, tends is present)  CORRECT

We spent some time discussing store hours for Christmas Eve, which falls on Sunday this year.  (spent is past, falls is present)  CORRECT

If you’re looking for a rule, here it is: trust your common sense. Take a look at this sentence, which needs two past-tense verbs:

Theodore Roosevelt declared that he would not run for a second term.  CORRECT

Let’s go on to past-perfect. In general, past-perfect is needed when two events happened at different times in the past. Use the past participle and had in front of the event that happened first. Most past participles will end with –ed, but a few verbs have special forms: gone, seen, done, and so on.

Although Karen had invited me to stay with her, I booked a hotel room instead.  CORRECT

I returned the DVD when I realized I had seen the movie with Jeff.  CORRECT

There’s an exception. When the sentence includes a time marker (last week, yesterday, in 1902), you don’t need to bother with a past-perfect verb.

After Joan told me about Grisham’s latest novel last week, I reserved it at the library.  CORRECT

Does it seem like there’s a lot to remember? It’s really not as much as you might think. If you review the rules a couple of time and practice writing a few sentences, you’ll quickly master sequence of tenses.

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Jean Cries “Uncle”

Some of you may not be familiar with the “cry uncle” idiom. It means “to admit defeat.” Yes, I am defeated.

During our unwelcome visit from Hurricane Irma last weekend, Charlie and I had no TV and no Internet. I passed the time by rereading one of my favorite books: Watch Your Language by Theodore Bernstein. He was the head copyeditor for the New York Times, and I am indebted to his books for rounding out my knowledge of English usage.

I stretched out on our bed and read – stopping every now and then to read the funniest bits to Charlie – until I came to this, on page 92:

Although, now that this subject has come up, there is a recent president of Columbia whose syntax falls a trifle short of perfection.  FRAGMENT

There was a loud crash as the universe came down around my ears.

I hate that although construction. It’s wrong, dammit. Any idea that starts with although is a fragment…plus you’re supposed to know better than to put a comma after although.

Here are two ways to write this sentence correctly:

However, now that this subject has come up, there is a recent president of Columbia whose syntax falls a trifle short of perfection.  CORRECT

But now that this subject has come up, there is a recent president of Columbia whose syntax falls a trifle short of perfection.  CORRECT

I’ve always assumed that this careless use of although was a recent development. But there it was, in a book by one of my favorite writers…back in 1958.

And the outrage didn’t end there. The very next day the universe mocked me with this Dustin comic strip:

Uncle. I give up. Although, I’ve vowed never to use that construction myself in this blog.

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Effective Exposition

I was caught off guard at the last meeting of the writers’ group that gets together regularly in a conference room in our public library. We were talking about an excerpt from a mystery novel called Murder in Silk that member Carol Corley had submitted.

Karen White had been struck by a sentence in Carol’s novel: “It was only a little after 6 pm., but it was already dark.” It was something I hadn’t noticed until Karen pointed it out: You know not only the time of day, but the time of year. In the warmer months, it gets dark much later.

That’s good exposition – a writing issue that befuddles even bestselling authors. For a novel to make sense, readers need to know what’s going on – the basic Who, What, When, Where, and Why of a story. But if you focus all your attention on the 5 W’s, as they’re called, your story never gets moving. Here’s an example of what not to do:

Joe and Jane are both high-school sophomores. They’ve been dating secretly because Jane’s parents are old-fashioned and strict, and they think she’s too young to date. Lately there’s been a complication because Joe is starting to get interested in Becky, a transfer student who’s enrolled in his biology class.

The problem with this paragraph is that it’s all background – we still haven’t seen Joe and Jane moving forward with their story.

Good writers (like Carol) know how to let readers in on what’s going on without pausing the story. And so, instead of an additional sentence telling us “It was a December evening,” Carol wrote that it was “already dark” at 6 pm. And there’s more: That already underlines the feeling that things are moving quickly – exactly the feeling you want in a mystery novel.

How do you learn how to do exposition? You can read a book about fiction writing, sign up for a workshop or class, or look for resources online. Many writers (including me) think the best approach is to study how effective writers do it. Pull your favorite novels off the shelf, turn to the first page, and see how the authors pulled it off. In fact that’s great advice for any writer. Daniel James Brand, author of the bestselling Boys in the Boat, says he learned tons by studying Lauren Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. (Here’s a link to a post about Boys in the Boat and Seabiscuit.)

If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, take a deep breath and read on. The big point I want to make is that writing doesn’t just happen: The best authors plan, work, and rework their material. If you’re a masterful writer, much of that labor is done unconsciously. To get to that stage, though, you have to spend many hours wrestling with your material. The good news is that it’s often fun and exhilarating.

So – don’t be put off by that big, abstract word “exposition.” Start writing and see where the words take you. Most important, keep thinking about your readers. Who are they? How are they reacting? What can you do to keep your story moving? You’re on your way – and so is your story.Mystery Wikipedia 2

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