Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Grammar rules for writing in past tense

An author writing a novel in past tense typically has four different verb aspects or modes to consider.

1. Past tense
These verbs usually end in ed [past participle]. This is the primary aspect of the past tense novel (note that irregular verbs do not end in ed).
He walked into the hotel.
2. Past progressive
These verbs end in ing [present participle] and are preceded by the words was or were. These verbs should be used when an event is taking place ("progressing") as an action in the past happened. This is the second most frequently used aspect of a past tense novel.
The sun was setting when he walked into the hotel.
3. Past perfect
These verbs end in ed [past participle] and are preceded by the word had. The past perfect aspect is used when writing about an event that occurred prior to your story's current moment. Such as during a flashback. This is an infrequently used aspect unless the author spends a lot of time describing flashbacks or discussing prior events.
Earlier that day, John had walked into the hotel with a suitcase full of money.
4. Past perfect progressive
These verbs end in ing [present participle] and are preceded by the words had been. This aspect is used when describing an event that was progressing as another event occurred prior to your story's current moment. Again, such as a flashback. This aspect is used infrequently.
The sun had been setting when John had walked into the hotel.
Note that in the sentence above had been could set the aspect for the entire sentence, and had is not necessarily needed prior to walked. Grammatically speaking, it's correct to use had walked. However, writers should use their own voice and judgement as to whether or not readers need the additional had to comprehend the timing of the scene. Here's a great article on breaking the rules of past perfect tense.

The following example showcases all four aspects.
The August sun had been setting when John, just ten years old at the time, had walked into the St. Francis Hotel in Cuba for the first time. Now, forty years later, John stepped back through the doors, and the August sun was setting behind him, once again..
Lie, lay, sit, set, rise, and raise
The easiest way to determine which form of these words to use is to check if your sentence is using a direct object then reference the chart below.
The cup sat on the table.
No direct object, so use sat, not set.
She lay on the bed.
No direct object, so use lay, not laid, and not lied (which means dishonest).
She laid the blanket on the floor.
This sentence has a direct object, so use laid, not lay. (Note: There is an error in the above diagram. "On the floor" is an adverbial prepositional phrase. It should be diagrammed under the verb "laid.")


  1. The subject of using past perfect when writing a novel that already takes place in the past has been haunting me lately, and in doing a google search, I came across this blog post of yours. It clears up SO much! THANKS!

  2. That's awesome Jennie! Thanks for visiting!

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  5. Thank you! You helped me so much with this article.

    P.S. I don't know what happened I posted that few times. Sorry :)

  6. I find this very useful in improving my writing specially that English is not my native tongue.

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