Some time ago I asked my clients what publishing terms or concepts they wished someone would define or explain for them. I covered some of those in my September 16 post on this site. Some, however, asked for help with some nagging grammar questions. (We all—even the most accomplished—have such questions.) So I was going to answer them, but then I thought, Why not ask my friend, editor, and grammar nerd Nancy Lohr to do the actual work? Not that I’m afraid of work; I just avoid it whenever possible. So, let me steal—er, borrow from—her expertise to answer these three questions my readers and clients have thrown at me:
Question 1: I never feel completely confident about when to use simple past tense and when to use past perfect. “I talked to Mary” or “I had talked to Mary”? Does past perfect always require a sequence of events, i.e., “I had talked to Mary before I left for the store”; otherwise, simple past will do, “I talked to Mary.” What about, “I talked to Mary, then I left for the store?” When is that troublesome “had” necessary?
Answer: Of course you don’t feel confident. That’s because English is consistently inconsistent. I’ve even heard of authors and agents who want someone else to explain grammar for them, but I think you’ve got it. Here’s how I compare past and past perfect tenses.
Past tense simply refers to events that have already occurred: “It rained all night” or “I watched a movie yesterday.”
Past perfect tense (also called pluperfect if you want to sound as smart as Bob) refers to actions that occurred before a certain point in the past, so not only in the past, but also before a specific time in the past. The sentence will look like this: subject + “had” (the past tense of “to have”) + the past participle: “She had published five books before she turned thirty,” “A tree had fallen on our garage.”
So now you want to know what a past participle is—a verb form that typically ends in “-ed” and is used to form perfect and passive tenses.
Bottom line: If you need to indicate that something happened before a certain time, then you need past perfect. If you don’t, simple past tense is fine.
Here’s a bonus tense:
Historic (or historical) present tense is also called dramatic present or narrative present, and you have probably seen it. This is when present tense is used to narrate past events. So, for example, someone might write: “Paul hears footsteps on the stone passageway, and then the jailer calls out, ‘Paul! Silas! Are you still in there?’” This reads as if it’s present tense, but we know this took place long ago, so it could also be written in past tense with “Paul heard” and “the jailer called out.”
So, when do you use historic present tense or simple past tense? If you want to heighten the drama of the text or make it appear that events are unfolding at this moment, use the historic present. This is a conscious choice you need to make as a writer. Just stay consistent. If you toggle back and forth between tenses, you’ll give your reader literary whiplash.
Question 2: I can never seem to wrap my brain around what a past participle is. I think I know, but ask me to define it, and I’m always stumped on a good, clear answer.
Answer to #2: Good thing we talked about past participles above, right? They’re verbs that end in “–ed” and are used to form the past perfect tense. I don’t want to speak for Bob, but he would probably want me to add that the past participle forms the past perfect tense in the active voice. It is also used to form all of the tenses in the passive voice.
Question 3: Tell me about gerunds—those pesky “–ing” words. I’ve heard they’ve fallen out of favor in today’s writing world. Why? Is it because they often travel with a tagalong passive partner that’s unnecessary and easily eliminated? “He was running,” instead of, “He ran.” What if you use an “–ing” word as a noun for sentence variety: “Turning the corner, he crashed into a little old lady coming from the other direction”? Is this bad? In or out? What’s the scoop on “–ing” words?
Answer to #3: In English, words are generally considered one part of speech. But with a modification or two, they can function as another part of speech as well. (Because we wouldn’t want this to be too easy, right?)
Gerunds are made by adding “–ing” to a verb and then using it as a noun.
E.g.—Let’s walk to the park. (walk=verb)
Walking is good exercise. (walking=gerund used as a noun, the subject of the sentence)
But who am I to say whether they have fallen out of favor? I just learned this week that periods at the end of a sentence can be considered hostile. I can’t keep up. I say, use gerunds accurately to add strength to your writing and adjust if your editor pushes back.
That’s exactly what I would’ve said if I’d felt like it. Thanks, Nancy. What about you? Are there nagging grammar questions about which—despite your many accomplishments and accolades—you still wonder?