Thoughts On Choosing Verb Tense

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In addition to making decisions about point-of-view for a piece of writing, another issue new writers grapple with is deciding on which verb tense to use when writing a story. Obviously, you will write in past tense if something occurred in the past, and present tense if something is occurring in the present, but is there more to it?

Past Tense. Past tense can be used to tell a story that happened in the past, or to provide backstory before jumping into a present-tense narrative. Beyond this obviousness, however, using past-tense is important if you want a first person narrator to be able to have a larger realization that can only come from hindsight.

Which makes sense when we consider that we don’t always have the best insight to events that have are happening in the moment. As events unfold, we may not have full time to process or make sense of what has happened, which is especially true if we are telling a story from our somewhat unreliable first person narrative. The same is true for fiction. Characters are capable of a certain level of deeper understanding if things have happened in the past.

Present Tense. Present tense can have the effect of being edgy and fast-paced, and the urgency can work well in terms of speeding up pace.  Writing in present tense can give readers the sense that the world is unfolding right now, a sense of “what will happen next?” The drawback–or benefit, if exploited properly–is that the characters may not have the ability to process as much realization as with past tense. This can sometimes work very well, though, if you are using a first person narrator who is unrealible to begin with. If the reader can see the disconnect between the character’s realization and what maybe should be a potential realization, then this tense can work very well.

Future Tense. Flashing forward to what will happen can add an entirely new sense of gravitas to a story. If we know a character is ultimately going to die, then flashing forward into the future can add an entirely new dimension to a narrative.

It’s fun to play around with the tense of your tales (couldn’t help that, sorry)–and good practice for writers as well.

Practice Makes Better

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Last week, I started teaching a summer class–a Comp 1 class–filled with nervous freshmen. They are all inherently likable, arriving to class with their notebooks and highlighters, filled with fear and optimism. The fear is usually at the forefront for most of them, though, and I forgot how often they utter the phrase, “I can’t write,” or “I am not good at writing.”

Part of my job is to convince them that they CAN write. After all, if they don’t think they can, they won’t try.  So I need to restore that hope, the concept that as with anything a bit complicated, it just takes practice.

I ask them to share with a classmate a skill they have, something they are good at.  Soccer. Basketball. Working out. Taking care of people. Cooking. Playing an instrument. Surfing. Re-building cars. Then, we come together and discuss how all of those things took practice and time, as does writing. So, it isn’t a matter of them not being good writers–or even just competent writers–but just that they may need more practice.

Writing is a complex act. Even if we aren’t writing poetry or fiction, we have to make decisions on audience, point-of-view, word-choice, and organization. We have to write a clear message, which isn’t always easy. We have to offer details and examples and be logical about the whole process. It’s no less complex than playing a guitar, yet people will beat themselves up if they can’t master an essay in one draft.

I try to learn from them on the level that I’m at. All things worthwhile take time. They take effort. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.

In Appreciation of “Y’all”


One of the great things about being a writer–or a student of language–is that we tend to develop an appreciation for how language is used. Take “y’all,” for example.

I wasn’t born in Texas, but, as they say in Texas, “I came here as soon as I could.” When I moved to Texas, I hadn’t ever heard anyone say “y’all,” except in the movies, so when I went to a grocery store for the first time and heard a woman tell her kids, “y’all go get some cereal and meet me over by the eggs” I stared after her. Yes, people really do say “y’all” in Texas (and the rest of the South as well).

And I love it. I don’t actually use the word myself–not having grown up saying “y’all,” I don’t feel I can own the word on my lips. I feel like an imposter, someone play-acting in a cowboy movie–but I love to hear it said upon the lips of my fellow Texans.

Obviously, if you studied a language in high school, you learned that English does not have a plural form of “you.” We have no vous, no voi, no vostros or what have you.  If you want to say a plural “you,” you have to improvise, depending on where you live in an English-speaking country. I grew up saying, “all of you” but it may have been”yous” or “yous guys” or “everyone here,” or “you. Yes you and you too,” or anything along those lines.

“Y’all” is not really a Texan phrase, but a southern one. Texas also doesn’t consider itself part of the “real south” either, but that’s another post.  So, to an extent, “y’all” evokes feelings of southern hospitality, of drinking iced tea down by a lake, while friends and family mill around and children play tag, and in order to call out to everyone for a family picture, you have to say “y’all come on over here! Grandpa is fixin to take a picture!”  In my experience, “y’all” isn’t used when talking to enemies.  “Y’all” is a friendly phrase, for the most part.  It can’t help but be that way.  The way I see it, you would not tell a handful of armed people,  “y’all put down those guns.”  To use the phrase “y’all” is automatically light and friendly.  It is not meant for enemies.

“Y’all” is a contraction of “you all,” but that contraction creates an intimacy.  Whenever anyone says it, it blankets a group with belonging, whoever the group may be. A group of strangers could be standing around waiting for a shop to open, but if someone were to say, “y’all watch out for the heavy door when it opens,” and suddenly there is unity. Y’all is now one. Y’all are going to watch out for each other when that door opens. You are connected.

It can even be expanded out to larger groups.  Y’all is usually reserved for a smaller circle of people–several yous. But what if you have a larger group than that?  Well, then that’s when “all y’all” comes in. For example, pretend that you have a large group of people who need to exit a room. Then you can say, “All y’all go through the exit. Now. All y’all!” Now, everyone in the room is connected with a contraction and everyone can exit the room.

I mention all this because as writers, it is important to analyze the local language around us and appreciate it for what it is.  What local words do you have where you live? What larger messages do you draw from them?