Pet Peeve No. 2146: Bad Advice about the Progressive Tense

How I react to recurring pet peeves! Screaming writer!

No, I don’t really have that many pet peeves about the writing advice I find on so many excellent blogs. Maybe only 2145. Or maybe it’s just that I see this one so often that it feels like I’ve seen it 2145 times.

Here it is:

“Whenever you find that you’ve used an “-ing” form of a verb, get rid of it. It’s a writing sin!”

The idea behind this advice is that the sentence

She was eating her lunch when the phone rang.

Means the same thing as

She ate her lunch when the phone rang.

No.

I have a feeling that most native English-speakers’ ear for their language tells them that these two sentences don’t mean the same thing and can’t be substituted for each other. The “to be” + “ing” form is the “progressive tense,” denoting an ongoing event or action, often, in narratives, functioning as a setting for some other action, probably involving the relative times of events.

Rain was falling by the time we went outside.

I walked out while he was still talking.

The usual advice is to change the progressive form to the simple past as in the example above or the simple present if you’re writing in present tense.

I am watching my son play outside as the phone begins to ring.

I watch my son play outside as the phone begins to ring.

Substituting the simple forms in place of the progressive introduces a suggestion of causality: One action caused the other.

I ate my lunch because the phone rang.

The ringing phone causes me to begin watching my son.

Note that the second example of this construction places a subtle emphasis on the ringing phone that is not present in the progressive example, linking the ringing phone with the decision or need to watch the child. Something momentous, probably ominous, underlies that call! (The guy she broke up with is making one last, futile push!)

The advice to cut this form appears to be connected to our need to “tighten” our writing. It also may result from the fear of the verb “to be” that seems to haunt so many writing pundits (a misplaced fear in my view).

Obviously, we all need to make sure our writing is as crisp as possible, with excess words excised. Scrutinizing your “-ing” choices does no harm, especially if (okay, like me) you begin to see a lot of them in your prose. Trying out different sentence options is seldom a wasted effort. For example,

Or

I’d just smeared my first helping of foie gras on my eighty-grain artisanal flatbread when the phone rang.

I walked out right in the middle of his jibber-jabber.

So what I’m inveighing against here isn’t the need to eye all our favorite sentence patterns with suspicion. I get that. What I’m resisting is the idea that you can always substitute simple tenses for progressive versions and that you should do so at the sacred altar of cutting words.

Sometimes it’s okay to let words do what they want to do. They usually will, anyway.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

3 Comments

Filed under Editing your novel, Myths and Truths for writers, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers

3 responses to “Pet Peeve No. 2146: Bad Advice about the Progressive Tense

  1. Pingback: Anne R. Allen on “The ‘Was’ Police” | Just Can't Help Writing

  2. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

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