Progressive Tense

Like the perfect tense, the progressive tense, consisting of a to be verb plus a participle, allows you to convey nuances of meaning. For instance:

Bobby was eating a lot of jelly beans.

Bobby is eating a lot of jelly beans.

Sentences or clauses in the progressive tense have two possible functions:

  1. Emphasis (Bobby is eating a lot of jelly beans right now)
  2. Setting the Scene (Bobby was eating a lot of jelly beans when Santa kicked down the door).

So use the progressive tense when you are trying to achieve these purposes.

One last note: Have you heard of the literary present? You've probably seen it, even if you have never heard it called by that name. The literary present is the practice in literary analysis of referring to events or ideas from books or other works in the present tense, even if (a) the work was written some time ago or (b) an event occurred in the past according to the work's time scheme. Thus, it is entirely correct to write:

Immanuel Kant develops his theory of the categorical imperative in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

Don Quixote battles windmills.

In the first example, though, you wouldn't be required to use the literary present. Immanuel Kant was an actual philosopher who published Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785. You can therefore state, as an historical fact, that he developed his theory of the categorical imperative in that work. Once you decide to forgo the literary present, however, you can't suddenly adopt it. The following example is incorrect because the tenses are inconsistent:

Immanuel Kant developed the theory of the categorical imperative in Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals. He defines it as the moral imperative to act as if one's actions should become universal law.

The tense shift here does not make sense; though the two actions (developing and defining) occurred at the same time and in the same book, we get two different tenses. Thus, the passage violates the Big Rule of Tenses: Pick one tense for a given time period, and use that tense consistently.

Try one on your own!

Review the following paragraph for tense issues

When the Soviet Union fell in 1990, many of its breakaway states are left without any infrastructure. They have faced the threat of dictatorship, and they had quickly succumbed to factionalism and corruption. They are endangering their citizens, and they were not showing any signs of reform.

Here is the corrected text:

When the Soviet Union fell in 1990, many of its breakaway states were left without any infrastructure. They faced the threat of dictatorship, and they quickly succumbed to factionalism and corruption. They have endangered their citizens, and they are not showing any signs of reform.

All the past events— the collapse of the Union and the rise of dictatorship— occur in the past tense, while the shift to present perfect and then to present progressive in the last sentence indicates ongoing problems.

Verb Tense

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