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Grammatical Time Travel

In the opening of Back to the Future, Marty McFly jumps in the Delorean to flee terrorists who’ve killed his friend Doc Brown, inventor of the Time Machine. Because Marty doesn’t know what he’s doing, he inadvertently activates the Flux Capacitor and travels 30 years back in time.

This type of accidental time travel, while fun in movies, should not happen at the sentence level. The culprit is the most dreaded aspect in all of writing: Grammar. Grammar is the silver bullet to good writing. Learn it. Master it. All of it. Even the parts that are the same thing despite being called by different names, like subordinate clause and dependent clause.

Verb tenses are the most crucial part of grammar because, when you use a verb tense without fully understanding its place and purpose, you’re essentially sticking your reader into the Delorean and stepping on the gas. Suddenly, your readers are in a different time. The most misused and abused tense is the Perfect Tense.

The Perfect Tense shows a time relationship between actions. Perfect Tense, indicated by the helping verb have/has/had and a main verb ending in -ed, shows that one verb happened prior to another verb.

Past Perfect: When the car drove by, I had walked to the store.

The had walked indicates that event started and completed. This means the walking is over and done with before the car ever shows up. It’s a sentence type we’ve all seen before and, logically, it’s not that tricky. But it gets tricky because of the order in which the verbs are presented. In the sentence above, the action that happened FIRST is written LAST.

In a sentence like the example above, you’re telling your reader, “Here is the present scene (car driving), but wait-wait… before that happened, let’s travel back in time so you know something that’s already happened before the car drove by.” It’s a small nuance in a single sentence, but taken over 250 pages of a novel, your reader gets confused and puts the book down. And even for the more resilient readers, you’re giving them more work to do and more words to read than you really need.

To keep things easily sequential, keep things in Simple Past/Present Tense: I walked to the store and the car drove by. Chronological order is the best. The Simple Past and Simple Present tense work the best because they are, no pun intended, simple.

Now, let’s look at an entire paragraph that misuses the Perfect Tense.

(1) Jeff and Daniel pulled out of the driveway. (2) They had filled up their gas tank and had bought a load of snacks. (3) Before they left, they had planned out their route, tracing it with a red marker on the map that Daniel held in the passenger seat. (4) Jeff asked Daniel if he’s ready. (5) They had been excited all day and Daniel answered with a solid, “Oh yeah."

This small paragraph seems straightforward enough. But take a moment to put each sentence in chronological order. While it’s written 1-2-3-4-5, the actual order is 3-2-5-4-1. And even this order is debatable because sentence 3 includes two different time periods, and the reader’s not sure if Daniel speaks before, during or after Jeff pulls out of the driveway (and did they get gas and then snacks or snacks and then gas, or both at the same time?). Lots of grammatical time travel.

A possible fix: Daniel, acting as navigator, traces their route on the map in red marker. Jeff buys a load of snacks and fills their gas tank. As they pull out of the driveway, Jeff asks Daniel if he’s ready. Daniel answers with a solid, “Oh yeah.”

Notice there’s no grammatical time travel, and that creates a smoother paragraph. The gaps in time between tracing their route, buying supplies, and their feeling of excitement are all implied just by the order of the sentences.

The worst possible offense is in combining misused Perfect Tense with other misused tenses in the same sentence or in multiple sentences together.

Bad Example: Dave is wiping the grease off of his hands with a towel he had grabbed.

This sentence starts with the Present Progressive Tense (is wiping – indicating that something else should be happening while the wiping occurs). But the only thing happening is grammatical time travel, as the sentence forces the reader back in time to say that, before wiping the grease, Dave grabbed a towel.

The simplest fix: Dave grabbed a towel and wiped the grease of his hands. However, you can also just eliminate the time-jump completely and rely on implications. Dave wiped his hand with a towel. How else can he wipe his hands with that towel if he didn't first grab it?

It’s not wrong to use tenses to grammatically time travel. After all, sometimes you need to write about past events. But when doing this, pay special attention to context, time order words, and all other verbs. Don’t just jump in the Time Machine and slam on the gas.

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