Don’t be Dense. Use the Right Tense. Part 2
In Part 1 of this article, we compared writing to painting. We discussed the basic tenses you’ll work with. Your primary colours, if you will.
Let’s mix things up and create a palette of subtle shades that will add nuance and depth to your story.
To Infinity and Beyond!
One thing we can do is introduce another tense: the infinitive.
We come across it more often than we think. The infinitive is basically a verb in its unconjugated state, but it can’t stand alone. It needs a sidekick.
- In these cases, the infinitive is supplemented by the word to.
I want to do something different.
To be or not to be.
- When asking a question, you also use the infinitive. As a sidekick, you use the word do. That’s the verb you’ll be conjugating when changing your question from present to past or future tense.
Does my cat still steal my neighbour’s dinner?
Did my cat steal any other stuff?
Where Does the Time Go?When describing habits or prolonged states of being, we have a number of options available to us.
We can use the infinitive combined with used to or would or we can even use the simple past tense.
Let me show you a few examples:
It shows a prolonged state, meaning I had long hair for quite a while, but I haven’t defined when I had that long hair. It’s clear, though, that I had it for a while.
I used to have long hair.
This is another option. This is a matter of style, really, but I feel as though this only works to show a prolonged state if I add more specifics to it:
I had long hair.
Let’s move on to habits.
I had long hair as a child.
This describes a habit of mine, but again, it doesn’t specify when I had that habit.
I used to have drinks with my friends on Friday night.
This is a bit more specific.
Back in college, I had drinks with my friends on Friday nights.
This, again, is more specific. Do note that the use of would paired with an infinitive can be used to describe habits, but you can’t use it to describe prolonged states.
When I was in college, I would have drinks with my friends on Friday night.
This doesn’t work as it’s a state of being.
When I was a child, I’d have long hair.
This does, because it’s a habit.
When I was a child, I’d ride my bicycle to school.
There is some discussion about the form used to+infinitive when you turn it into a question or a negative statement.
Some say it goes from past (used) to present (use).
The explanation given is even quite plausible. You only conjugate one word. In the above examples, the conjugated word would be to do. However, the used to form is not a proper conjugation, but an idiom, based on an archaic meaning of the verb to use.
Didn’t you use to hate studying?You didn’t use to smoke.
That’s why you should always stick with used to instead of turning it from past into present tense when using the form in a negative or questioning phrase.
“What’s gotten into you, Fluffy? You didn’t used to be such a thieving cat.”
Describing Current HabitsThis is one way in which to use the progressive tense. That’s when your verb ends with -ing and you combine it with to be as an auxiliary verb. It’s not the only way to go about it though. Let’s have a look at some more examples:
This is the description of a currently ongoing habit.
My neighbour is used to protecting her dinner from my cat.
Could be a currently ongoing action, or a habit. However, if we add one little word:
My neighbour protects her dinner from my cat.
But has she been doing this all along? Or did the thieving habits of my cat teach her to do it?
My neighbour always protects her dinner from my cat.
My neighbour always protects her dinner from my cat now.
This describes the forming of the habit. You could also turn it into the present tense.
These days, my neighbour protects her dinner from my cat.My neighbour has gotten used to protecting her dinner from my cat.
My cat isn’t really giving the woman a choice, is she? Anyway, this is called the progressive tense. More on that later.
My neighbour is getting used to protecting her dinner from my cat.
Another way to describe the start of the habit. Maybe I should lock my cat up at dinnertime though.
My neighbour has started to protect her dinner from my cat.
What About Ongoing Actions?You can use the progressive tense for that as well, either present or past.
What? Again? Yes. But this time, she’s in the act of stealing as we speak. Again, this can be adapted to the past of future tense, depending on where it fits in your timeline, and the tense in which you decided to write your story.
My cat is stealing my neighbour’s dinner.
This form is also very useful in a comparative form.
Unless you have a clear reason why you need progressive tense, you’ll want to limit its use. The phrasing can feel like it’s passive even when it technically isn’t. When trying to write powerful prose that draws your readers in, passive phrasing or the illusion of it will be counterproductive.
My cat steals my neighbour’s dinner when she’s not watching.
I invite my neighbour over for dinner when my cat has been stealing hers.
My cat is stealing my neighbour’s dinner while she’s answering the door.
It's a Verb. It's a Noun. It's Superverb!
A verb can be treated as a noun and act as the subject of another verb. There are two ways to do this.
If you attach -ing to the verb, we call that a gerund.
Stealing is something my cat excells at.
You can use the to+infinitive form as a noun as well.
To giggle when my cat steals my neighbour’s dinner would be wrong.
Let's Round Things Up
You get the idea, right? I have a thieving cat. We actually had one when I was a child. Once came home with a side of roast beef weighing in at about two kilograms.
Mum didn't dare to go knocking on neighbours' doors to find out who it belonged to, so we had roast beef that night.
Garner, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press. 2003. Page 810.
If you have any more questions about this subject, I’d love to have a chat with you over at The Writers’ Block Discord channel. Writery minds are always welcome there.
For now, I bid you all good luck, and good writings.
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