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Updated on August 17, 2009

Tenses in writing

This seems to be a place we all fall down on at one time or another.

The tenses change dependent upon whether we are talking about something that is happening, has happened, is about to happen or might happen.

This might help to point out the pitfalls of changing tense within a piece of prose.

Future tense

This defines things that are going to happen or might happen some time in the future.

"The sun will rise tomorrow..."

"Tomorrow will be wet and windy over most of the south west..."

It's defined by the use of the word 'will'. This denotes something definite ahead, but It's unlikely that a whole story will be written in future tense.

Present tense

This describes things that are happening now.

"The sun is hot..."

"It is raining so hard that I don't think I will be able to out today..."

It is defined by the use of is, rather than was.

Once again, it's one of those tenses that is not likely to be used for a whole story.

Past tense

This is the most popular.

It defines things that have already happened.

When writing a story, we often tell it in past tense. That is to say that the story has already happened and we are telling it after the fact.

"The boys were walking down the road and as they did..."

It appears though as if authors tend to forget where they are when writing and have a tendency to write the narrative in a mixture of past and present.

"His arm is hurting as the man grips harder..." defines something that is happening in the now and should really read "His arm was hurting as the man gripped harder..."

It's a simple mistake and often follows dialogue as this can be in any tense.

Dialogue details the conversation between people who are often taking about the past, present and future, but can be quoted within something that is predominantly written in past tense.

  1. The man gripped her arm tightly and no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn't get loose. He simply tightened his grip.
  2. "Let go," she cried. "You're hurting me."
  3. The man simply laughs.
  4. "If you don't let me go, you'll be sorry."
  1. is the narrative that's entirely in past tense.
  2. is dialogue. She cries "Let go," and then tells the man that he is hurting her - present tense.
  3. More narrative - present tense.
  4. "If you don't let me go, you'll be sorry." This is a threat and is worded in the future tense, meaning that something will happen later if he doesn't let go now.

You will notice in the upper four that 3 is present tense and shouldn't really be. It's just bad grammar. However, the account is being given after the fact,so really and truthfully, the man laughing should also be described in past tense, so he should have laughed.

It's entirely possible that the author will return to a mish-mash of present and past tense after that.

It is important to remember that when writing in past tense, the dialogue is quoted from the past, yet is verbatim to what was happening when it was said, which at the time was the present.

The narrative before and after should not change.


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    • leni sands profile image

      Leni Sands 7 years ago from UK

      Really useful hub, tenses are as important as context you get them wrong and it becomes confusing. The information supplied in your hub seems perfect to me and you are right we can all make mistakes - we hope to catch them during edit. Remember to err is human! Great hub, keep up the good work.

    • Helen Cater profile image

      Helen Cater 8 years ago from UK

      Very helpful as you can get lost in a stry when writing and forget where you are. I was here.

    • Nick B profile image

      Nick B 8 years ago from Normandy, France

      I don't know if I got it all perfect as there are other tenses that creep up, but many make similar mistakes - me included - which is why I thought this might well be helpful.

      Thanks for the feedback.

    • MistHaven profile image

      MistHaven 8 years ago from New Jersey

      I've been writing so long now that I can't really explain what I'm doing, I just kind of do it, lol. Thanks for the refresher on tenses of speech.