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Let's Talk Grammar : Past Progressive Tense vs Simple Past Tense

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by TheCatholicCrow, Feb 10, 2017.

  1. TheCatholicCrow

    TheCatholicCrow Inkling

    A quick refresher for everyone ...

    Simple Past : The hero decapitated a dragon with his sword.
    Past Progressive: While the dragon was flying, the hero decapitated it with a sword.

    I recently got a critique which pointed out that I have a tendency to "overuse" Past Progressive (too much simple past sounds so bland to me). I could be wrong, but both of the above sentences look correct to me. I don't understand why it should make a difference one way or the other.

    Is this just some sort of knee jerk reaction to "was" (I've seen people confuse it for Passive)? Or is there something I'm just not seeing here?

    Initially, I dismissed it (because "style") ... but I don't want to be arrogant and leave it in my manuscript, only to have an editor tell me the same thing.

    Any thoughts? Do you have a strong preference for one or the other?
    Mike Chara likes this.
  2. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    If the action happens at the same time (or shortly after) then use the past progressive. If it is a simple action, then use the simple past.

    On that note, some authors use the simple tenses to illustrate fast-paced action.

    He grabbed his sword. It seemed to weigh 30 pounds, so his muscles strain. He watches the orc charging, as if in slow-motion. His sword comes up, the gleaming blade almost parallel to the ground. The orc brings his axe up with a roar.

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Sometimes I do the same thing... a lot. It's not about being grammatically correct. IMHO it's about the rhythm and pace you create with the structure of your sentences. Sentence structure can slow down or speed up the feel of the story.

    Every scene/story, and the different moments within, is different and has different needs depending on what you're trying to convey. Put too much of one ingredient and things will slow down too much. Not enough and things can feel like they race by without enough time to enjoy the moment.

    Finding that balance is tricky, and IMHO can make the difference between a well told story and one that's only meh.
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2017
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Thank your readers for their input.

    Then, be arrogant and let an editor tell you to change it. Argue with the editor if you feel like it; they'll probably let you have your way while privately thinking well, they warned you. Meanwhile, do take Saigonnus' advice. You can examine the phrases and make sure your use of the past progress is in fact appropriate.

    Many times my beta readers point out stylistic flaws. Many times, I agree with them and just make the change. No problem. Once in a while I disagree and leave it unchanged.
    TheCatholicCrow likes this.
  5. The simpler tenses, to me, seem more direct and to carry more force. I prefer the first example to the second one very much. (Poor dragon. :( )
  6. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    I definitely think the past progressive has its uses, especially when establishing the flow of events. A sentence like "It rained when Bob went out for a walk in the evening" implies a different thing than "It was raining when Bob went out for a walk in the evening." The former sort of makes it sound like Bob going out for a walk caused the rain to fall, while the latter simply states what the weather was like, incidentally.
  7. I usually use present tense. There's too many tenses! :p
  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I would prefer the first by a wide margin. This isn't always the case, but it is most often. I doubt its a kneejerk reaction to was, but in some cases it could well be... that's a pure guess.

    I'd also guess that different examples might get a different answer. While both here are relatively bland, the latter is far less "active" despite not being passive, so to speak.
  9. Alyssa

    Alyssa Troubadour

    The past progressive has its place, but it's something I like to go easy on. It only serves to convolute the sentence unnecessarily here and also creates a bit of confusion. It robs the immediacy from the hero's action and the verb also makes it sound sort of like the hero decapitated it while it was half a mile up in the air. I'm no expert, but, IMO, the issue is that you're using a relatively weak verb here, which is only being made weaker by the use of was. It's not in the passive voice ("to be" + past participle) but that doesn't mean it doesn't have passive elements to it.

    As the dragon swooped in for the kill, the hero decapitated it with his sword.

    Two useful links here, not fully related for the most part, but still useful:
    Using -ing Words | The Editor's Blog
    What is an Absolute Phrase | The Editor's Blog
  10. Mike Chara

    Mike Chara Scribe

    The problem is perhaps the sentences not the style. They are both a bit bland [I have a strong suspicion you just whacked them out for the example], but more importantly they also they don't actually compare the same thing, because one involves flying and one doesn't – so can't really compare them fairly.

    Perhaps this could be a better comparison:

    -The dragon was swooping down but Hero's blade flashed up, burying into scales mid-flight.
    -The dragon swooped down but Hero's blade flashed up, buried into scales mid-flight. [I'd be tempted to stick an 'and' after the comma here].

    Or combi,
    -The dragon swooped down but Hero's blade flashed up, burying into scales mid-flight.

    I'm going to mirror what some have said above, and that I think each really depends on the scene and the flow of what's happening. It's a really interesting conversation so I'm looking forward to more input.

    I think I like the third one most and I haven't the faintest why.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  11. TheCatholicCrow

    TheCatholicCrow Inkling

    ^ YES. On all accounts - yes.

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