Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Progressive Tenses

Progressive tenses cause some confusion -- and because I recently ran across an example of this confusion, I thought it would make sense to talk about it. We'll talk about the example in a moment, but first let's review what a progressive tense is.

Progressive tenses indicate an action which occurs over a span of time -- an ongoing action. The action can span the past, the present, or the future. The verb is formed with an auxiliary that indicates the time period PLUS a present participle. It's always the present participle regardless of the time of the ongoing action.

I was talking on the phone when the doorbell rang.
I am talking on the phone when the doorbell rings.
I will be talking on the phone when the doorbell rings.

The bolded pieces are the progressive conjugations. We call these progressive because they denote an action in progress (get it? progress --> progressive), and they are usually used to indicate an ongoing event at the time of another non-ongoing event. The doorbell rings once, in one moment, unlike the talking which spans a spread of time.

Here's where people sometimes get into trouble with progressive tenses during sentence-level edits.

I was talking on the phone when the doorbell rang.
I was on the phone talking when the doorbell rang.

Notice that in the second sentence, we've moved the prepositional phrase (on the phone) between the auxiliary (was) and the present participle (talking). This doesn't change the fact that this is a past progressive verb -- the verb has just been cleaved by that phrase.

In the example I was shown, a professional misidentified that participle as a gerund. (Which gave me a seizure, but that's another issue.) A gerund is a present participle used as a noun.

Talking on the phone is easier than emailing someone.

Now the participle talking is being used as the subject of the sentence. It's a gerund a/k/a a noun. Participles are slippery little buggers that can mutate from verbs to nouns to adjectives, but they don't mutate because you shift a phrase. They mutate because of how they're being used. Back to our sample sentence --

I was on the phone talking when the doorbell rang.

Cleaving the verb doesn't mean it's not a verb anymore. It's still a past progressive verb. In the example I was shown, the writer was advised to convert the "gerund" (ack ptooey) to a modifying phrase, and the resulting change would have introduced both confusion and error into the sentence. This is a perfectly serviceable sentence. No changes are needed. It's cleaner to keep the auxiliary and participle together, but it's not necessary.

The other kind of bad advice we usually see with progressive tenses focuses on that poor little auxiliary verb. Can I get an amen from everyone who's been told to cut "was" from their texts? But you can't cut it from a progressive conjugation without destroying the sentence.

I talking on the phone when the doorbell rang.
I talked on the phone when the doorbell rang.

The first sentence is clearly wrong, and the second has a different meaning because the sequencing has been changed with the verb change. So don't do that. The bad verbs to kill are not the progressive tenses, but the simple past tense conjugations of "to be," such as --

The sky was blue.

That's a boring sentence. In fiction, it's not enough to describe something's state of being. We have to relate it back to the action of the plot and the perceptions of the characters.

The blue sky made her shudder with relief. They had survived the storm.

Now the description is being tied to a character's experience in a specific moment in time. That's why you should kill the "was" verbs in your text -- to elevate the text from straight description to something more specific. But don't destroy your progressive verbs. You will still need them from time to time.



David Kaufmann said...

I for one enjoy these posts with grammar insight and attention to details. They serve as writing stimuli, if not as prompts: I am reminded (not that I need reminding) of the importance of sentence-level construction, and see the fractal iterations into larger metaphoric, narrative and plot structures.

In brief - THANKS!

Edittorrent said...

The best writers never need these kinds of reminders, David. We know that our only tools are words, and the precise organization of those words can create certain effects on the page. Story aspects (plot, character, theme, and the like) are fun to work on, but without words on the page, the story can never become an actual book. It will just live in our heads instead of in our readers' libraries.

So, yeah, I agree with you. :)

Stella Omega said...

"I am talking on the phone when the doorbell rings."

I have often wanted to write erotica in the style of Damon Runyon. But my somewhat explicit content doesn't really serve the grandiosity of the style.