It Happened When?
by Cherie Tucker
We have to talk about verbs, folks. Those lively words that tell the actions your characters take, like run, jump, kiss, sleep. They have magical properties that allow them with just simple changes to tell the exact time that something was done. Look at the difference, for example, between “He has run around Green Lake before” and “He had run around Green Lake before.” Subtle, but a world of difference.
Controlling your verb choice will determine whether or not you have given your characters’ actions the correct time frame and shown the reader you are a credible writer. There are a few verbs that are notoriously misused by people, and if you are among the misusers, pay attention.
Verbs come in the present tense (now), the past tense (then), and in things known as participles that require something called a helper verb (or an auxiliary verb if you had nuns). For example, walk in the present is walk. If it happened yesterday, you walked. The word that requires helpers is also walked, and the tense of the helper verb will determine when the walking was done: he did walk, he might have walked, he should have walked, etc. The problem people are now having is that they put the helper on the past tense and leave it off the participle: You should’ve saw what we seen. Watch the late news on the local channels and count the number of witnesses who say, “I seen a red car” or “I seen three guys.”
Here are some troublesome culprits you might want to spend some time with:
Drink drank have drunk (It’s “I wish I hadn’t drunk so much.” Really.)
Swim swam have swum (“How long has your son swum the IM?” Really.)
Sink sank have sunk (Most TV folks declare that “Three boats sunk!” It’s sank.)
Dive dived have dived (Dove is becoming more common, but it’s not dive, dove, have diven.)
Go went have gone (If you have ever said should’ve went, go to your room!)
Shrink shrank have shrunk (Yes, it should have been Honey, I Shrank the Kids.)
Lie lay have lain (This is a description of non-action, something at rest. You can’t do this to anything. “It lay there all day in the rain.”)
Lay laid have laid (This you do to something. “Lay your head on my shoulder.”)
There are many more, but if you just work on these few, you won’t have to rewrite sentences to avoid using them ever again. And if you avoid misusing them while speaking, you will also avoid hearing the sharp intake of breath from your audiences.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com