What are tenses? They are a term applied to a verb, which is an action word in writing. Merriam-Webster online states that in grammar, a tense is “a … form of a verb expressing a specific time distinction.”
When you look at the different tenses of a verb, you are said to be “conjugating” the verb. Big word, eh?
For an example, we’ll use the verb “to walk.” The differing tenses, or conjugations, of “to walk” are: walk, walks, walked, walking. You can also use “helper” verbs to indicate more tenses: am walking, is walking, have walked, had walked, will be walking, etc.
“I walk” is present tense. That means it’s being done right now.
“I walked” is past tense. That means it has been done in the past.
“I will be walking” or “I will walk” is future tense. That means it will be done at a later time.
There are other tenses, but these are the simplest and most commonly used ones.
Most books are written in past tense, and the active verbs are therefore written in past tense:
She walked to the store and bought some groceries.
Sometimes books are written in the present tense. This is an example:
She walks to the store and buys some groceries.
Whatever style you use, you may find that occasionally you make an error and mix your tenses in a sentence:
She walked to the store and buys some groceries.
This can most often happen in books that use present tense, since it’s more natural to talk about things in past tense, but it sometimes happens in books that use past tense, too. Dialogue can be written in a mixture of past, present, and future tense, which can be confusing:
“Let’s walk to the store and buy some groceries,” said Barbara.
“But we just went yesterday.” Sylvia whined. “We will walk tomorrow and then we will buy what we need.”
As you can see, the tenses are mixed in the dialogue sentences, but they fit the situation. Barbara says, “Let’s walk,” which is present tense. She wants to go now. Whiny Sylvia says they just “went” yesterday. Since it happened previously, that’s past tense. She wants to go tomorrow—“we will walk”—which would be the future tense. “Walk” doesn’t have a different form for the future tense, so Sylvia has to add the helper verb “will” to indicate future tense.
Mixed tenses that are incorrect would generally be found in narrative writing, not dialogue. Science fiction, fantasy, or historical writing that has time changes can be very confusing when it comes to keeping tenses on track!
Next week we’ll discuss ‘Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles’
This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.
I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.
If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.