Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why are you so tense?

Verb tense. Wow. Am I really going to talk about verb tense? As a matter of fact, I am. Besides the basic present and past (and sometimes future), I really don’t give tense much thought on a day to day basis. It just comes out of my mouth when I speak and if it sounds right, I use it. Now that I’m writing, I sound it out in my head to see if it “sounds” right, but it would be much better if I wrote it correctly to begin with.

So, I started to re-educate myself on basic grammar and even if I knew the rule, I wanted to learn what everything was technically called. For whatever reason, I latched onto tense first. Here’s what I scrounged up.

There are six tenses.

   Simple past               I walked

   Simple present          I walk

   Simple future            I will/shall walk

   Past perfect              I had walked

   Present perfect         I have walked

   Future perfect          I will/shall have walked

Okay, simple tense I understand quite well. I grasp all three simple tenses and use them correctly and effectively every day. Perfect tense, however, is a different story.

First of all, what does “perfect” mean? Why call it past “perfect” tense? Because perfect means completed. When I say, “I had walked,” it means that I walked at some point in the past and I completed my walking. Here are a few examples:

“I walked to the store.” – This is open ended. You could still be walking or at the store.
“I had walked to the store.” – Implies you walked to the store, did you what you needed to do and you are no longer there.
What about future and future perfect?

“When I’m done with dinner, I will walk to the store”. – this says that you are going to finish your dinner and then you are going to walk to the store.
“When I’m done with dinner, I will have walked to the store.” – This says, by the time you are finished with dinner, you will be at the store.
The examples aren’t exactly how we would naturally word something when we speak or write, but do you see the difference in the meaning by changing from future to future perfect?

Recently, I have been running into the past perfect tense a lot. Many writers will if they use past tense, which is the norm (although, not necessarily a standard). What happens when someone in the past is talking about something further in the past, like a flashback (sometimes jokingly referred to as the “past” past tense)?

“John wanted me to take a shower, but I had taken a bath already.”

“Although Mary had eaten earlier, her stomach growled.”

“By the time Jane reached her house, she had worked up a sweat.”

Since the writing is already in the past, to point out something that happened further in the past, we used past perfect.

There’s a catch in there. Sometimes, you can use “had” and past perfect too much. In today’s written world, if the meaning is there and there is no implication otherwise, you don’t have to get all fancy. To take a previous example:

“Mary asked me where I got the milk. I told her that I walked to the store this morning.”

“Mary asked me where I got the milk. I told her that I had walked to the store this morning.”

Technically, the reader will pick up the same meaning from both examples because of the context. If you are writing a long flashback and “had” is all over the place and becoming annoying, it’s okay to drop it if the meaning remains the same or if the reader knows from the context that it’s happening in the “past” past, but be very careful, because it’s very easy to change meaning unintentionally.

“When I got to the house, my ice cream melted” – I got to the house, THEN my ice cream melted. Messy house.
“When I got to the house, my ice cream had melted” – My ice cream melted by the time I got to the house. Messy car ride to the house.
As always, everything in moderation and check for meaning. We writers sometimes know what we are trying to say, but don’t get it down on paper the way we think we do. This is especially true when working with the perfect tense.

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