Friday, August 30, 2013

Blog Editing Tip: The Secret to Too Many Verb Tenses Is Simple

Originally published at, June 24, 2013, as “Blog Editing Pro Tip: How Do You Handle Too Many Verb Tenses?”

Do you know the difference between future progressive, present perfect and past perfect progressive? Though you might not know them by name, you know how to use them, and you probably use them all the time. Maybe you use them too much.

 These complex verb forms rely on the use of helping verbs, but they might not be helping your prose. A helping (or auxiliary) verb, when paired with a main verb, creates a verb phrase that gives writers whole new sets of tenses, moods and voices.

There are a number of helping verbs, but the two most common are to be and to have. For instance, I have written this. You are reading this, and you are getting the picture.

Sometimes, though, we can use helping verbs like a crutch: sure, they can keep the prose moving along, but they won’t let it run.

Editing tip: Using an active voice in simple past, present, or future tense will reduce sentence length, speed your reader along and create more variety in your verbs.

What you’re looking for as you edit are verbs that end in -ing or -ed that follow closely after a form of to be or to have. (Some verbs are irregular and so don’t end with either of these in their participial form.) Watch out for contracted forms of these linking verbs, too, like the one in the first sentence of this paragraph.

When you find a helping verb, decide whether having a verb phrase in that form is necessary. Simple past, present or future tense might work just as well but without the extra bulk. Sometimes an edit like this requires recasting the entire sentence.

Look at this example:
While Mitt Romney was running for President, sales of hair tonic had sky-rocketed in a way that had not been heard of since the Nixon administration.
This sentence would be more economical if it were recast using verbs without helpers:
When Mitt Romney ran for President, sales of hair tonic sky-rocketed in a way unheard of since the Nixon administration.
Whether or not this new version fits the bill for your blog post is your judgment call. Changing the verbs can lead to subtle shifts in meaning, as well as changes in the text’s rhythm, mood and voice. But by focusing on your verb tenses, you can find when and where you routinely overuse helping verbs and streamline your blog posts.