Time After Time: Common grammar errors when writing in past tense
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post about the most common grammar errors I find while editing. In this post, I’m going to talk about a couple of errors specific to authors writing in past tense.
• Not distinguishing different “levels” of the past when writing in past tense: A lot of fiction is written in the past tense. This seems easy enough—just use past tense verbs, right? She ran, he cried, she learned. Unfortunately, it’s a little trickier than that. When a book is in past tense, the action that is being described with the past tense is the current action of the book. It’s past tense, but it’s the most recent past of the book’s world. So what if you need to talk about something that happened before the events of the recent past? For instance, let’s say your protagonist works at Microsoft during the time frame that your story’s action takes place. Before that, he went to school at MIT. If you used just the past tense to tell readers this, it might look like this:
Jason worked as a principal software engineer at Microsoft, a job he loved. He majored in computer science at MIT with the express hope of someday working at Mr. Gates’s little company.
In this example, it sounds as if working at Microsoft and studying at MIT are happening at the same time. There is no way to determine that one of these things happened before the other. And that’s where past perfect tense comes to the rescue. As you may remember from sixth-grade English class (but probably forgot before seventh grade started), the past perfect tense is used to indicate that an action was completed at some point in the past before something else happened. It’s the tense that uses “had” along with the past participle of the verb. If we use past perfect tense in the sentences above, we get:
Jason worked as a principal software engineer at Microsoft, a job he loved. He had majored in computer science at MIT with the express hope of someday working at Mr. Gates’s little company.
Now it’s clear that Jason studied at MIT before he worked at Microsoft. Much easier to understand. And yet lots of authors neglect to use past perfect tense, making things harder for readers.
One little caveat here: while the past perfect tense is very helpful in letting readers know where in the past an action took place, it can get a bit annoying if you have a whole slew of “hads” cluttering up your paragraph. If the action that took place in the deeper past is going to go on for more than a couple of lines, it is okay to start the paragraph in the past perfect tense to give readers a heads-up that we’re going further back in time and then switch back to “regular” past tense for the rest of the action.
• Using the wrong words when describing the day an action took place: So, you’re writing along in past tense, and you need to tell readers about something that happened the day before the current action. I frequently see constructions like this:
Jennifer needed to talk to Rosemary. She needed to explain why she had been hugging Michael yesterday.
Seems to make sense at first glance, right? But terms like yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all relative to the present tense. Yesterday isn’t a fixed moment in time; it’s just the day that came before the current one. But if we’re writing in the past tense, we’re not writing about what’s happening on the current day. We’re talking about what happened on some past day. If we were talking about what was happening on the current day in time, we’d be writing in present tense. So how do we tell readers about something that happened the day before? Here’s one way:
Jennifer needed to talk to Rosemary. She needed to explain why she had been hugging Michael the day before.
In this example, we are still indicating that something happened the day before the current action, but we aren’t doing the weird time jump required by yesterday. The same holds true for today and tomorrow:
Ashley had no idea how to convince her mom to let her go, but she had to figure it out today.
Since this is taking place in the past, it isn’t really today, is it? So we could say:
Ashley had no idea how to convince her mom to let her go, but she had to figure it out before the day ended.
What about tomorrow? We could change:
Benjamin needed to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was the biggest day of his life.
Benjamin needed to get a good night’s sleep. The next day was the biggest day of his life.
Tomorrow was? That sounds a little off, doesn’t it? How can we talk about tomorrow, which is in the future, in terms of the past (the verb was)? The problem is that the narrator here is telling us this story from some undisclosed time in the future, so Benjamin’s tomorrow is in the narrator’s past. Eliminating tomorrow gets rid of that dissonance.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Is this really a problem? It seems like a small change.” And it is. I’m not implying that your readers are going to read one of those yesterdays and scoff and say, “Humph. He should have said ‘the day before.’ I’m done with this book!” But they probably will have a sense that something is off, even if they aren’t 100 percent sure what it is. Too many instances of “something’s off” can make a reader put down a book, or at the very least not find it as satisfying as they would have. We may as well eliminate as many of those instances as we can to give readers the best experience possible.