Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the Simple vs Continuous Tense

On the Simple vs Continuous Tense

A couple of years ago at a writing workshop I heard a book reviewer of a prominent Australian newspaper berate an emerging author over her use of the continuous tense. 'You never, ever should use it,' he said, slapping her work on to the table like some theatrical arsehole.

The reviewer was not alone, many writers demonise the continuous tense, often falsely labelling it passive.

But I use the continous tense now and then. Why? Because when used cleverly it works. It can:
  1. Place emphasis on time and place. It implies that the act istself  is important.
  2. Add richness to a literary piece in a poetic sense and it can slow the narrative pace 
  3. Highlight the character in action.
 The continous tense often destroys the flow of a piece and can enable a feeling of unintended 'telling'. But when used wisely it is an effective tool. Take for example Ruby J. Murray's short story 'Outback' in New Australian Stories 2:

'Mark knows she is looking at him, knows she is running her finger over her lip, which means: nervous, unsure, undecided.'

The  above achieves all the before mentioned points: time slows down to capture that moment and this further highlights Mark's observations, emphasising the sense of attraction. Of course, change it all into the present simple and it still functions well (albeit at a quicker pace) but I think that Murray chose the right tense for that particular moment of the story. And moments are a writer's chief focus - how long a writer lingers on them is debatable and dependent on style, pacing and taste.

No matter what you might have been told, the continuous tense is still a great tool to have in your writing arsenal.


  1. Sittin' in the mornin' sun
    I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come
    Watching the ships roll in
    And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah

    I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
    Watching the tide roll away
    Ooo, I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
    Wastin' time

  2. I must say even after Googling around a bit, I'm still not entirely sure what the difference is between continuous tense and passive voice. Might have to start taking a few lessons from you, Ant!

  3. Hi Mark, love that song too. I am 'Redding' right now :)