Are You Progressively Tense?

Here’s our next look at tenses. If you missed last week’s post, review this first so you can understand what it means to be perfect 🙂

It’s important for fiction writers to understand what progressive tense is. Why? Because it’s used too often and can weaken your writing. So if you know what it is, you can look out for it (kind of like digging out the bits of onion in your salad that you don’t like). We tend to use this tense casually in speech and writing, and it certainly has its place. But if it’s not needed or just the right tense required for what you mean to say, then replace it with a better tense.

As my 9th-grade English teacher used to say: “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.” I live by that motto!

Certain tenses are progressive because they indicate things that are in the middle of happening. They are not completed (perfect, as in perfect tenses) yet. They are in progression.

Here are some examples:

  • Present Progressive: I am walking down the street. [This tense is formed with the verb “to be.”]
  • Past Progressive: I was walking down the street. [Notice the ing at the end of these verbs. That’s a signal you’re dealing with a progressive tense.]
  • Future Progressive: I will be walking down the street.

So why is the progressive (sometimes called “passive”) tense a bad thing sometimes? Because you want to try to have your characters be more active and not so passive. Usually.

Want to challenge yourself? See if you can now figure out what Present Perfect Progressive would look like (no peeking below).

Okay, here it is:

  • I have been walking down the street all day.

And here are the other Perfect versions of the Progressive tense:

  • Past Perfect Progressive: I had been walking down the street. [Note the shift from have to had when talking about the past.]
  • Future Perfect Progressive: I will have been walking down the street. [Starts sounding a bit clunky . . .]

So you can see how this tense can get not only passive but cluttered, which could make you progressively tense. Makes sense these are called progressive tenses.

If you can find these in your writing and change them to the simple present or past tense, your writing may come across more concise and clear, which is a good thing. Instead of writing “Bill was walking down the street,” say “Bill walked down the street.” Unless you need to explain that Bill was walking down the street when something happened, then you probably don’t need that tense.

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  1. I love this post. As an added thought: when you quoted your high school teacher (‘Don’t say what you don’t mean’), I thought you might be heading to writing the “negative space” detail. That is, if a writer is using passive tense because the active version isn’t what they mean, then they might be able to avoid the passive by instead giving the detail of what keeps it from being active.
    I was walking, when… remains passive.
    But one of these might fit the author’s vision of inactive walking:
    Halfway down the street, the road was blocked.
    I was in no hurry to get home so walked slowly.

    I like that your quote got me thinking that way. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Great post. You’ve bumped into a pet peeve of mine. People do call the progressive tenses “passive,” but passive is not a tense, it’s a voice. Often people will edit things by taking out helping verbs and saying they’re doing it because the sentence is passive. When I see that, I cringe. There are two voices in English, active and passive. A sentence is in the active voice when the subject of the verb is doing the acting. A sentence is in the passive voice when the subject is being acted upon. I know you know this, but once I get in instructional mode, I can’t stop. So…

    The boy threw the ball. — active. The boy threw.
    The ball was thrown by the boy. –passive. The ball didn’t do the throwing. It was being acted upon.

    In the second case, there is a helping verb (was), so I think that’s where the confusion comes in. But using a helping verb does not make a sentence passive. This causes all sorts of problems, because people are told to avoid passive sentences, so they think they have to take out all the helping verbs. And in doing so, they write sentences that aren’t quite right. There’s a huge difference between, “I dressed. A man walked in.” and “I was dressing. A man walked in.” In the second case, somebody might be screaming. 🙂

    Loving the blog. Have a great weekend.

    However, you’re absolutely right in saying the progressive is often called passive. But it’s not.

  3. I have been scouring the internet for advice here. My writing partners highlight my uses of past progressive. But to me, it seems as if it’s a knee-jerk thing–like throwing out all adverbs. Or semi-colons. What if that’s exactly what I mean to say?

    1. If you are writing in past tense, in general, but then relate some backstory–something that was completed in the past–you have to use the past perfect (I had gone to the store). Same applies with something that had been “ongoing” in the past (I had been walking to the store when …). Yes, you can overdo, and if you are relating an incident in the past, you can limit the use of “had” to the first and last line. But that doesn’t always work with the past progressive. Rewording a different way can sometimes help avoid clunkiness in that regard. And some feel you should never use “was” (as in “I was walking”) but there are plenty of times when it’s the best structure.

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