A few months ago we discussed tense in stories—how most stories are written in either past or present tense and how authors can accidentally switch between the two. On the surface, tense is very simple, right? There’s past, present, and future, and that’s that.
But not really.
Without getting too technical, English grammar has this thing called aspect which alters tense. There are four different aspects, which can combine with past, present, and future tenses to produce twelve different combinations.
But wait, there’s more!
There’s actually more than past, present, and future tense—English also has what is called a relative tense, or a “future in the past” tense. This tense can combine with the four different aspects just like the others, bringing our total of tense-aspect combinations to sixteen.
I’m going to briefly describe each of these tenses, but before I do, I’d like to give a disclaimer: I don’t expect you to remember all of these tenses. The purpose of this post is not to freak writers out with the hidden complexities of the English language. I’m not saying that every writer should be able to identify each of these sixteen tenses by name at the drop of the hat.
The real purpose of this post is to help English-speaking writers understand their language a little better—trust me, just being aware of the existence of all sixteen tenses will improve your writing. It will help you pick out occasional errors a little more easily. You’ve used all of the tenses before; their use is instinctual to you. So don’t stress out—just read through the tenses below and enjoy the rush of new knowledge.
(Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t memorize all the tenses and how they’re used. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t feel any pressure to do so—it’s not a requirement for being a good writer.)
Present Simple: Juan walks to the store.
Indicates that a person performs an action with some measure of regularity. Can also be used in dialog to describe an action in the moment (there she goes).
Nanette jogs two miles every day.
Present Continuous: Juan is walking to the store.
Indicates that a person is currently in the middle of an unfinished action or that a person hasn’t finished a task yet but periodically returns to the task with an eye to completing it in the future.
“Nanette? I think she is reading right now. Just a second, I’ll check.”
“I’m studying Italian in school.”
Present Perfect: Juan has walked to the store.
Indicates that a person has just completed an action and is now either ready to perform or is currently performing a new action.
“The suspect has approached the target and is initiating dialog.”
Present Perfect Continuous: Juan has been walking to the store.
Indicates that a person has just spent a period of time performing an action which may or may not be finished—often used when the action is now being interrupted. Also used to indicate that a specific action or portions of a task have been occurring regularly for some period of time.
“No, Nanette has been sitting here with me all day. She couldn’t have stolen the jewels.”
“Juan has been studying Italian lately.”
Past Simple: Juan walked to the store.
Indicates that an action of indeterminate length or completeness occurred at some point in the past.
“Nanette jogged twice today.”
Past Continuous: Juan was walking to the store.
Indicates that an action was in the process of occurring (and then was probably interrupted or something else occurred at the same time).
Nanette was jogging when she got the call about Juan.
Past Perfect: Juan had walked to the store.
Indicates that an action was performed and completed before further actions took place.
Juan suggested they go out for dinner, but Nanette had eaten already.
Past Perfect Continuous: Juan had been walking to the store.
Indicates that an action was in the process of being performed when it was interrupted and probably left incomplete.
“The suspect had been working for hours before we apprehended him. We don’t know yet how much he got done.”
Future Simple: Juan will walk to the store.
Indicates that an action of indeterminate duration or completeness will occur at some point in the future.
“Nanette will pick up the ingredients we’re missing.”
Future Continuous: Juan will be walking to the store.
Indicates that an action will be in the process of occurring (and will then probably be interrupted or something else will occur at the same time).
“I guarantee you Nanette will be reading the book when you get home.”
Future Perfect: Juan will have walked to the store.
Indicates that an action will have already been completed at a future point, when something else may then occur.
“Do you think Nanette will have read the book by that point?”
Future Perfect Continuous: Juan will have been walking to the store.
Indicates that an action will have been going but will yet be incomplete at some point in the future. Statements with this tense will usually focus on the duration of the incomplete task.
“Nanette will have been studying for ten straight hours by the time you get home. She will need a break.”
Relative (Future-in-the-past) Tenses
Here’s where things get fun. Relative or future-in-the-past tense generally refers to an action that will be in the future for a specific individual, but not necessarily for the speaker. This often means that a portion of the sentence (or the surrounding sentences) will be in past tense, but the action referred to in relative tense will be yet to happen at that point in time, although it may have already happened for the speaker.
It gets even more confusing because relative tense takes the same form as conditional sentences, were something will only happen if something else happens first.
… let’s just get to the examples.
|Tenses are concerned with the time of events in your story, so things can get a little . . . wibbly-wobbly.|
Relative Simple: Juan would walk to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past expected to perform an action of indeterminate length or completeness at some point in their future.
Nanette knew that she would buy the book.
Relative Continuous: Juan would be going to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past would be, in their future, in the process performing an action (which would then probably be interrupted).
Nanette figured that she would be reading by then.
Relative Perfect: Juan would have gone to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past would perform an action that will have already been completed at a future point, when something else might then occur. Confused yet?
Nanette realized that she couldn’t read that night, because by then Juan would have already retrieved his book from her place.
Relative Perfect Continuous: Juan would have been going to the store.
Indicates that someone in the past would perform an action that will have been going but will yet be incomplete at some point in their future.
Nanette knew that on a normal day she would have been jogging for fifteen minutes by this point in the evening.
You made it! That post ended up a lot longer than I’d planned, but I hope it was informative. Next time, we’ll discuss a little more about why all these tenses are so important.