Verb Tense: how to say when we mean Part I

Emily Leverett

Today I’m going to continue my discussion of verbs—those wonderful little words of action—by discussing verb tense and the “expansion” of verb forms. Warning: at a point later on in this post, you will see things that look like math. Do not be alarmed. It is still writing—still grammar. If you *like* math, then you’re all set. If you don’t like math, just hold on. It’s worth it. Trust me.

So. In English, unlike in, say, romance languages (Spanish and French, for example), we have only 2 tenses: past and present.

“But wait!” you say. “I speak about the future all the time, too!”

Yes. We have the present, present progressive, past, past progressive, present perfect, past perfect, present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive, future, and future perfect.


But in terms of grammar, in terms of changing the spelling of a word to denote a change in tense, we only have 2 tenses. Everything else we want to say—all the other times we want to use—are created using helping verbs and what’s called “the verb expansion rule.”[1]


First, every verb has 5 verb forms—five different spellings:


Regular Irregular
Base form (present tense) Laugh Eat
-s form (present, 3rd person, singular) Laughs Eats
-ed form (past tense) Laughed Ate
-ing form (present participle) Laughing Eating
-en form (past participle) Laughed Eaten

From these 5 forms, we can make every tense we want in English, with a little help.

To make our verb tenses, we combine auxiliary verbs (helping verbs) with the main verb. The two helping verbs we use are “be” and “have.”

For example (and these are all ACTIVE VOICE; we’ll discuss passive later):

  1. The man has eaten.
  2. The students will be eating.
  3. I eat every day.
  4. He ate this morning.
  5. My cousin eats nothing but potatoes.
  6. We should eat more veggies.
  7. They are eating fewer sweets.
  8. We were eating when the phone call came.
  9. We may eat at Joe’s.
  10. He had eaten all my chocolate.
  11. I could have eaten all of it.
  12. We have been eating lunch together for weeks.

Whew! A lot of different ways to express when we eat! But grammarians represent all of these possibilities with a single rule:

 T (M) (have + -en) (be + -ing) MV

 Everything in parenthesis is optional. So there are two required parts of any verb, grammatically speaking: the Tense (T) and the Main Verb (MV).

In sentences 2, 3, and 4, we see these two components represented in one verb: “eat,” “ate,” and “eats.” In 2 and 4, the Tense is present, and in 3, the Tense is past.

In 1, 7, 8, 10, and 12, “have” and “be” are used. You’ll notice, every time a form of “have” is used, it is followed by the “-en” form of a verb. Every time a form of “be” is used, it is followed by the “-ing” form of a verb.

So the verb strings for 1, 7, 8, 10, and 12 would look like this:


1. Past + have + -en + eat: have eaten

7. Present + be + -ing + eat: am/is eating

8. Past + be + -ing + eat: was/were eating

10. Past + have + -en + eat: had eaten

12. Present + have + -en + be + -ing + eat: have been eating


But what about 2, 6, 9, and 11? The “will” and “should” and “may” and “could”? These are called “modals,” because they express the “mood” of the verb. (We’ll do a whole post on mood at some point. Simply put, it refers to the manner in which a verb is expressed: as a fact, desire, possibility, or command.) We use modals particularly to express what will or might happen in the future.

There are six modals in English. Four have both “present,” will, shall, can, and may, and “past,” would, should, could and might. Two have no past form: ought to and must.

So, now, the remaining sentences can be expressed as a verb string:


2. Present + will + be + -ing + eat: will be eating

6. Past+ shall + eat: should eat

9. Present + may + eat: may eat

11. Past + can + have + -en + eat: could have eaten.


So, there you have it. All of our ACTIVE VOICE verbs in our verb strings. From the formula above, you can make any active voice verb happen in any tense. This is why you can end up with a sentence like this: Julie had had this idea before! (Past + have + -en + have).

Feel free to try a few of your own in the comments and we’ll talk about them! Create the verb you want and then give its verb formula, or create a formula and see what verb you get out of it!

Two weeks from now I’ll discuss how we change this verb string to account for PASSIVE VOICE!


[1] I will be referring throughout to the very useful grammar textbook (NOT a grammar usage guide, but a textbook discussing the English language) Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, 9th edition, New York: Pearson, 2012. Chapters 4 and 5.

Party Talk: The Evil Overlord List

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

BigBad2Hey y’all, The Big Bad II releases tomorrow!  Whoo hoo!  Twenty-four tales of vampires, demons, ghosts, zombies, and the most terrifying monsters of all – humans.  It’s going to be available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle, so if you want to be one of the cool kids, go order your copy right now!

I’ve asked our authors to join me for one more round of Party Talk, and this week’s question is:

What are your favorite rules from the Evil Overlord List?

Matthew Saunders:”One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.” This is very sound advice for life in general.

Gail Martin:  7 and 56. Related to 7 should be the Syndrome Corollary: No monologuing!

David B Coe: Hard to choose from this list, because they’re all pretty good, and they all boil down to the same thing: If you’re going to be evil, don’t be stupid. But I think my favorite might be this one: “If an attractive young couple enters my realm, I will carefully monitor their activities. If I find they are happy and affectionate, I will ignore them. However if circumstance have forced them together against their will and they spend all their time bickering and criticizing each other except during the intermittent occasions when they are saving each others’ lives at which point there are hints of sexual tension, I will immediately order their execution.” Tropes are one thing, clichés are another, and should be avoided (or executed) at all costs.

Misty Massey: #34  I will not turn into a snake.  It never helps.

John GloverThe Evil Overlord List is terrible and wonderful at the same time. We’ve all read or watched (…or written…) the villains that make this list necessary, but two rules stand out for me. One is a distillation of most of the rest, as far as I’m concerned: “One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.” Whether the problem is silly costumes or silly plots, a five-year-old needs to vet The Plan. The other rule that gets me is “100. Finally, to keep my subjects permanently locked in a mindless trance, I will provide each of them with free unlimited Internet access.” Make your subjects grateful — whether it’s for bread, circuses, or streaming Kim Kardashian — and you can do whatever you want. And THAT’s evil. Not the giving, but the capitalizing on human flaws.

Edmund Schubert: #12. One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.
I’d prefer to be an Evil Overlord, not an Evil Idiot Lord.

Eden Royce:  While all of them are practical and make good sense, I think I’d have to pick these two:

#40. Always use the unstoppable superweapon first. That way, you can win the battle early and have time to relax with a book or a cappuccino

#92. I used to work in a customer service related field. I’d be great at pacifying the client—I mean hero—on the phone. He’d have no idea I wasn’t being genuine. One I hung up, I’d be able to carry out my evil plan in peace.

Selah Janel: They all made me laugh, but I especially love:

I will hire a talented fashion designer to create original uniforms for my Legions of Terror, as opposed to some cheap knock-offs that make them look like Nazi stormtroopers, Roman footsoldiers, or savage Mongol hordes. All were eventually defeated and I want my troops to have a more positive mind-set.

I totally agree with this. Uniforms can make or wreck self-esteem, and a lot of minion uniforms really don’t seem user-friendly compared to the situations those minions find themselves in.

I also love: When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say “No.”

Word. It always seems so contradictory that a lot of villains do this, because up until that moment they’re so in the groove and confident, then when they’re about to get their way, they undermine themselves by something like this.

Jay Requard: #12, #13, and #98. Especially number #98. Makes the book that much more fun.

Sarah Adams: I’ve already made the mistake of having an heir, so he’ll no doubt one day supplant me. Also, I insist that my pet monster be chained to my Throne of Darkness for greater effect. But I’m a huge fan of #96 and #98. The problem is that my efforts to kill the squabbling stereotypes will probably only result in several more tedious scenes in which they save each other’s lives, experience even more inexplicable sexual tension and grow closer together so that they can finally defeat me in chapter 35. So my alternate strategy will be to send them a competent couples counselor who can convince them that their unspoken attraction is just hormones and they are better off as friends who marry other people. That should at least keep them busy while I find a way to steal the ancient sword/magic ring/my generic nemesis artifact that one of them is carrying.

Nicole Givens Kurtz: This is such a fantastic and exhaustive list of no-brainer types of rules, that is was difficult to narrow it down to my favorites; however, I have been successful in culling out the ones that resonate with me.
My favorite rules from the Evil Overlord List are:
6. I will not gloat over my enemies’ predicament before killing them.
22. No matter how tempted I am with the prospects of unlimited power, I will not consume any energy field bigger than my head.
34. I will never turn into a snake. That never helps.
56. My legions of terror will be trained in marksmanship.
59. I will never build a sentient computer smarter than I am (see my previous answer for #3 above).
69. All midwives will be banned from the realm.
82. I will not shoot at my enemies if they are standing in front of the crucial support beam to a heavy, dangerous, unbalanced structure.
84. I will not have captives of one sex guarded by members of the opposite sex.
94. When arresting prisoners, my guards will not allow them to stop and grab a useless trinket of purely sentimental value.

Literate Liquors Episode 15 – Short Stories

John G. Hartness

With Big Bad 2 releasing next week, and with a fairly well-read SFWA article about why you should write short fiction even if there’s no money in it, I thought it would be worth it to provide a nuts and bolts, dollars and cents podcast about short fiction, how I do it, why I do it, and what I make from it. I include my earnings from January and February so far on my short fiction sales. I think it might surprise you.

Literate Liquors Episode 15 – Short Stories

Deadly Inspiration

Gail Martin

After eight epic fantasy novels, why write an urban fantasy?

To paraphrase famed bank robber Willie Sutton, “Because that’s where the story is.”

I’m not planning to quit writing epic fantasy. For one thing, I’ve got more novels under contract and even more clamoring for attention in my head. But an idea led to a short story which turned into a novel that became a whole new fictional universe, and now there are more stories that just won’t be satisfied until I tell them.

Maybe that only makes sense if you’re a writer, but having stories in your head that want out is a miserable thing unless you go along with the urge and write them, bringing them to life. Which brings me back to Deadly Curiosities.    DEADLY CURIOSITIES

It all started when I got my first invitation to write a short story about pirates and magic for an anthology. I came with “Steer a Pale Course”, and introduced an antique shop whose mortal owner and vampire partner worked together to get dangerous magical items off the market and out of the wrong hands.  The time period for that story was the late 1700s. Other anthology stories were set in that time, or in the 1500s, when my vampire character Sorren was newly turned, the best jewel thief in Antwerp. Then Jon Oliver at Solaris asked me to do a short story for his Magic: Esoteric and Arcane anthology, and wanted something more modern-day. He liked my story “Buttons” so much that he asked for a novel with an eye toward a series.

I’ve grown up visiting antique shops, because my dad loved to prowl the aisles, looking for a good bargain. With time to kill, I went looking for unusual, archaic items and amused myself by making up stories about them. I’ve also always loved visiting museums and living history sites, experiencing how people lived in other time periods. And always, there were the personal items that they surrounded themselves with, things that might not be monetarily valuable but were precious to them. Mingle that with a life-long love of ghost stories, and I started to think about items that might be haunted, or whose owners had invested with magical power.

Then I got invited to speak at a conference in Charleston, SC. It was somewhere I’d always wanted to visit, and I fell in love with how beautiful it was, and also with the blood-stained history just beneath the genteel facade. Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US, and it hadn’t been overused as a fantasy setting. I made up my mind I was going to figure out how to set some stories there.  So a lot of different streams all seemed to come together to create the Deadly Curiosities universe that culminates in the upcoming novel.

A modern-day setting in an existing city meant urban fantasy, but I had been reading for pleasure in that genre for quite some time, taking a “busman’s holiday” from epic stories just to clear my mind. Familiarity with the structure and tropes of urban fantasy–and conversations I’d had with urban fantasy authors over the years–all helped the story fall into place. When you’re a writer, nothing is ever wasted. You might not know exactly when or where you’ll use an experience, but sooner or later, it shows up in your books!

That He Said, She Said Thing

Melissa Gilbert

Dialogue causes trouble, in more ways than one. Dialogue needs to be honest and fit the character, which has been discussed on Magical Words before. But another thing that causes trouble is correctly punctuating dialogue. (I did say that I really like punctuation…)

I’m going to break this post into four sections: dialogue tags, stand-alone dialogue, divided dialogue, and extended dialogue. Interior monologue is something a bit different, so I won’t include it here.

The Basics: Dialogue Tags


A dialogue tag is the he said, she said part. There are two basic ways to punctuate this kind of dialogue.


“Give me the clock, Sarah,” Mike said.

Sarah turned to Mike and said, “Get your lazy butt up and get it yourself.”


In these two examples, note the use of the comma between the dialogue and the tag. The tag essentially completes the sentence, but that little bit of separation is necessary. Also note that the comma in the first example and the period in the second example are both inside the quotation marks. That’s especially important.


Independent Words: Stand-Alone Dialogue

Stand-alone dialogue occurs when your dialogue doesn’t have a direct tag and stands alone (get it?) as a sentence. It may have a follow-up sentence that coveys action, but that isn’t necessary to make the thought complete.


“This is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen!” Mike dropped the broken clock on the desk and walked away.


This type of dialogue is also often seen in conversations as well.


(A conversation between Mike and Jamie)

“Well, I didn’t break it,” Jamie said.

“Who cares who broke it? It’s broke and now it’s useless!”

“So, what are we gonna do now?”

“I don’t know…”


You should use some interspersed tags throughout, but they’re not needed for every exchange if the reader can easily follow along, particularly if the exchange between characters is short or fast paced.

Break It Up: Divided Dialogue

Divided dialogue occurs when you have a dialogue tag or action interrupting a piece of dialogue.


“Sarah,” Jamie said as he turned away from Mike, “did you break the clock?”

In this example, “Sarah, did you break the clock” is one piece of dialogue and Jamie said as he turned away from Mike is interrupting that thought.

Notice the punctuation—the commas essentially surround the interrupter. Do you remember the cows and fence from my last post?

Also note that the second piece does not begin with a capital letter. The reason we use lower case here instead of upper case is because we’re essentially stopping a sentence in the middle of a thought, so when we resume the sentence, we would keep the capitalization as we would if the thought hadn’t been interrupted.

The Long-Winded Folks: Extended Dialogue

Extended dialogue occurs when a character has a longish bit of dialogue, so long that it requires being broken into paragraphs. The only difference between this extended dialogue is that you don’t close the quotation marks at the end of the paragraphs until the end of the dialogue. (Confession time: Before I started learning about this stuff, I always thought that leaving off the end quotation mark was a typo!)


Mike sat down by the fire and began to speak. “None of you really understand how important that clock is to saving the world. It’s an ancient artifact that was never meant to be unearthed. Many years ago, a young woman was locked away every day when the sun went down until sunrise. She hated being locked away. Every night, she would stare at the simple wooden clock in her room and watch the minutes tick by.

“One night, she decided that she had had enough. She made a plan to enchant the simple clock to be able to start and stop time at her command. In less than one moon cycle, she had successfully enchanted the clock.

“She stopped time just before sunset the next night. But, what she didn’t realize was that everything would stop, except her. Her enchantment had worked too well. She hadn’t intended to halt everything. She restarted time and went back to her room. She looked through her curtains out at the moon rising and knew that she had to destroy the clock, but she couldn’t. Instead she hid it in the hollow of a tree.

“That’s where we found it. And now that it’s broken, I don’t know that there is any way to restart time again.”


It’s that simple! It looks strange to me, to be honest, but I know it’s correct, so I just cringe a bit and move on.

I have a challenge for you! Ready?

Post in the comments some short fiction that uses at least three of the four types of dialogue. You know you want to! Let’s see what you can do.



Party Talk: What Makes A Villain?

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

BigBad2We’re a week away from the release of The Big Bad II!  It’s available for preorder now, if you don’t want to waste even a second of valuable reading time.   Some of the best fantasy and horror writers in the business bring you 24 thrilling tales of vampires, demons, ghosts, zombies, and the most terrifying monsters of all – humans.  You know you want to read this book!

Once again, I’ve asked some of the writers from The Big Bad II to answer a question for you.  This week, Party Talk wants to know:
What makes a villain a villain? What would it take to transform the villain in your favorite story into the hero?

 Sarah Adams: Being on the wrong side of history? (And isn’t that a loaded phrase.) Broadly, I’d say a villain is the person who’s willing to hurt other people to get what he or she wants, who somehow believes the harm they do to others doesn’t count or is excusable, but the harm others do to them is unforgivable. And that means we’re all the villain some of the time. I don’t mean that in a moral equivalency way, but as a reminder that real people don’t exist as Bad Guys and Good Guys, but as complicated bags of conflicting desires. We have to keep choosing to be the Good Guy, by doing what is good instead of labeling ourselves the Good Guy and then using that label as an excuse. That would be exactly what the protagonist has done in my Big Bad story. He’s sure his intelligence and secret knowledge make him special, a sort of intellectual hero, when really he’s just a boy pulling wings off flies to see them hurt, but on a larger scale. (This is also, by the way, why I’m not a fan of anti-hero heroes who are really just scumbags who happen to be the protagonist, but I am a fan of heroes who have to roll their eyes and sigh a bit before they go do what they know needs doing.)

Jay Requard:  I think the best villains are heroes to themselves. They can find a justification for something, no matter how horrible it is, based on the idea that it is for the “greater good” of something they find to be more important than anything else. You can see this in so many things: Jamie Diamond of JPMorgan Chase truly believes he helped save the economy (even though he continues practices that will one day lead to another crash.) Emperor Palpatine, to use him again, believes that the only way the galaxy can be safe is if there is total order (even though it happens at the cost horrible human rights abuses and the denial of self-determination for people not named Palpatine.)
My favorite villain is Matron Malice Do’Urdon from RA Salvatore’s Drizzt books, who puts her ambition above everything else. I think what would redeem her to me and possibly turn her into a hero is if she suddenly recognized that the culture she relishes in was as cruel as many believed, that her actions were reprehensible, and she worked to make things better in the opposite way. I believe strongly that everyone deserves a chance at redemption and forgiveness, so even she could save herself.

Gail Martin: A villain is villainous because he/she is completely self-centered and place no value on anyone else—very end justifies the means. Even if they are doing what they do for a ‘cause’ rather than to just get money/power for themselves, the villain is indifferent to suffering or death in the service of the cause.
In order to become a hero, the villain would require enough of a degree of empathy to value other people/living beings and to recognize that the end does not justify the means. That also requires a capacity for humility and some degree of self-sacrifice.

Edmund Schubert: What makes a villain a villain is a willingness to cross certain lines. No matter how good or understandable or even noble someone’s intentions may be, there are certain lines that should never be crossed. Murder, torture, taking lollipops from babies—these are all on the no-no list. If you want to be the hero in my story, you have to get creative, work a little harder, and find a way to accomplish your goals without crossing any of the lollipop lines. Like, thinking your daughter was a total babe, for instance.

Nicole Givens Kurtz: A villain is a person who believes her cause to be just and will do whatever it takes to make it happen or to achieve her goal. Moral, ethics, and religious beliefs be damned. Once a character has discarded the crux of their humanity/self, they dissolve into villains. Darth Vader is perhaps the best, most popular example of this.
Another example of this is Marvel’s Ultron, DC’s Brainac, or Watchmen. Good intentions often spring from a real desire to protect, to monitor, or to watch, but once the “good guys” began to embrace those darker emotions (fear, paranoia) and sacrifice their beliefs and ethics, they dissolve into villains. If they do not become outright villains, they create so much anarchy and chaos under the guise of villainy. The heroes believe they are doing what’s right for the greater good, but in reality they are feeding into their own black emotions and thus creating chaos/anarchy/outright villainy.
This is also illustrated again in my favorite novel, A Separate Peace. Gene, the protagonist, actually is a bit of villain because he allows his jealousy of his friend seep within him and at the end, forces him to cause the death of that person he claimed to admire and love the most. Once Gene, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not, allows his jealousy to corrupt those good and wholesome parts of himself (loyalty, friendship, honor), he ends up hurting Phineas and ultimately causing his death.
In a word, Gene embraced the dark side.
My other favorite story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What would it take to turn Victor Frankenstein into a hero would be for Victor to have empathy for the creature he creates in the novel? As a protagonist, Victor is consumed by hubris and arrogance. So, for much of the novel, he is presented as a flawed man, with vices and thoughts that run counter to those of the establishment, his family, and his best friend. Nevertheless, he too, like Gene and Anakin Skywalker, choose to see their deeds as noble and as necessary to promote their agendas for the better good.

David B Coe: For me, the best villains are those who are considered “villainous” because they are at odds with the protagonist. Villainy, when characters are drawn in shades of gray rather than in black and white, tends to be subjective, a matter of perspective. That, to me, is when a story is most fun. When the only thing it would take to transform the villain into a hero, is to retell the story from his/her perspective.

Selah Janel:  In a lot of ways, I think if you change the point of view, a lot of villains would come across as heroes in their own minds. They don’t necessarily think they’re doing the wrong thing. Look at Loki in the Thor movies – at any time he thinks he’s completely justified in his actions because of his heritage and because he thinks his birthright is stolen from him. Jareth in Labyrinth is just doing what his role says to do—he’s doing his job, from taking Toby to putting up obstacles for Sarah to come up against. The vampires in Lost Boys are being played by the head vampire in a lot of ways. Because Max wants Lucy and presumably gives the order to bring her sons into the club, as it were, they’re just doing what they do, and end up being killed off because the kids decide to fight back.  Sure, you’re going to have the evil for evil’s sake villains, but usually those are dependent on certain types of genres. The good villains don’t necessarily see themselves as in the wrong, and it’s that conflict that really makes their battles against a hero worth watching. The best villains are ones where you can take a step back and actually start to sympathize or empathize with.

Matthew Saunders: I think the best villains are those who either do the wrong things for the right reasons or the right things for the wrong reasons. I think a hero and a villain can have the same noble goal, but its the motivations and the means to get there that make the difference.

Misty Massey:  I’ve always loved a scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, in which Indiana Jones’ nemesis, René Belloch explains to him, “You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”

Eden Royce:  A villain is someone who desires to take something that doesn’t belong to him (or her) and acts on it. We’ve all wanted something another person has (ice cream, book collection, whatever) but most of us don’t act on the urge to take that item. Villains do act on those urges and feel they are entitled.

All good villains are multi-faceted. No one is 100% evil. All it would take to change the villain into the hero for me is to act on that one deeply imbedded urge to help someone less fortunate.



Literate Liquors Episode 14 – Anthologies

John G. Hartness

For a change, John has a theme for his post, and it’s about anthologies, which often have a theme of their own. Huh, wonder if I planned that?

Nope, not a chance.


And because I reference it in the podcast, here is a picture of a cat in Bojangle’s chicken box.

cat in a box