Tag Archives: progressive tenses

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.

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“Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

A great post from Anne R. Allen via Chris the Story-Reading Ape. Thanks, Chris!

Actually, some of my *favorite* rules to ignore! Especially 1, 3, 5, 6–gee, all of them.

But I do have several cents worth of addenda from my own experience in writing groups and classrooms.

Number 1 is among my favorites because so many critiquers in my current online writing group just HATE “echoes” to the point that they are tone-deaf to the power of repetition for emphasis and rhythm. Anne’s examples beautifully illustrate this point.

And I love #3 because of the many times I’ve been scolded for using “passive voice” when in fact I was using a progressive tense, which requires “to be” as an auxiliary. I agree that progressive tenses can be overused, but there’s a big difference between “He ate when she came in” and “He was eating when she came in.” Again, check out Anne’s examples.

As for #5, I’ve often started to write a post on the consequences of cutting “all” adverbs. Idiocy. You could never use a “when” or “before” or “after” clause if you tried to do that. You could never use “often” or “never.” Okay, some adverbs don’t add any information. Cut them. But stay sane. I have discovered in myself a tendency to pile up adjectives, and I appreciate having that lapse pointed out. And I do believe in the power of strong verbs. But just the right adjective, in just the right place, can be magic.

As for the passive voice, the wonderful book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by the late Joe Williams (latest editions co-authored by Greg Colomb) has a terrific discussion of the uses and abuses of the passive voice—and actually clarifies what that critter is! Check it out.

As for point of view, in the comments Anne clarifies that she means using multiple points of view in different scenes, not in the same paragraph or even sentence, as I’ve seen writers do. I’ve become paranoically sensitive to accidental POV slips, almost to the point, I fear, of annoying some of my fellow critiquers. But I’ve been re-reading some Tony Hillerman, and he “head-hops” all the time. So what to do? Make a deliberate decision that head-hopping really serves your text. My guess is that the practice will interfere with the close identification you want to build between reader and character.

Also in the comments, Anne touches on the “that/which” option. In my view, these are clear-cut, with “that” opening an essential modifier and “which” a non-essential one. But as Joe Williams pointed out almost forty years ago in his classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error,” even the most rabid promoters of the distinction ignore it all the time. So we can, too.

My bottom line (note cliché, rule #7): Writing is about making choices. Knowing why readers sometimes object to style choices helps you make good decisions. But sometimes those decisions are to ignore.

 

 

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Anne R. Allen

Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is “never start a sentence with ‘there are’” —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Some of the rules show up in any standard writing book or class, but others only seem to get circulated in critique groups, conference workshops, and forums.

They’re a secret to everybody else.

But you’ll run into them sooner or later. In a forum or workshop, somebody will tell you with schoolmarmish assurance that you MUST follow these secret writing rules to be a successful novelist.

Nobody knows exactly where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don’t get me wrong: many “secret writing rules” involve useful tips…

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Using -ing Words | The Editor’s Blog

This article provides excellent, detailed discussion. In critique groups I’ve been enrolled in, some critiquers seem terrified of the progressive tenses, and some believe that using a present-participle phrase as a modifier constitutes “mixing tenses” and therefore incorrect. The article is on point that glomming onto such rigid rules limits writers’ options for rhythm and meaning.
And the discussion here of dangling modifiers should be required reading for all aspiring writers. i see so many of these. Otherwise competent writers seem oblivious to them. The examples here precisely mirror what I see. Here’s my rant on dangling modifiers.
I think writers need to READ, widely, and not just the latest free examples of their favorite genre, to see how good writers make use of many available strategies and apply rules thoughtfully rather than blindly.
If you’ve ever been told to cut “-ing” words, take the time to read this!

Word Craft ~ Prose & Poetry

book-1012275_1280I wish there was a magic wand I could wave to correct my grammar as I continue editing my novel. How about you? Read this comprehensive article about editing and how to fix some of your mistakes. This is a MUST-READ! ❤ 

There’s a lot of conflicting advice that tells writers to never use words that end in -ing or to not use -ing words under certain conditions. Explore both the advice and the rationale behind it.

Source:Using -ing Words | The Editor’s Blog

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