Jan, I just happened to be reading a book yesterday that interacted with your tense lesson. In one case, it supported your view 100%. In the other, it pointed out something that we as aspiring writers need to do that you were not attempting to do with your lesson, but that I thought I’d mention.
First the point of agreement. About third person, present tense, you wrote
May tend to sound ‘gimmicky’, or unfortunately, like stage directions.
I had just read the story of B. H. Friedman trying to find a publisher for his novel Circles. In the process, someone who read the book told him he had to re-write the book which was originally written entirely in the present tense. She told him “You’ll never sell it that way. It sounds like stage directions.”
However, in the same book, I read seven Do’s for authors who want to be published. The FIRST “do” was “study and master English grammar . . . .” It went on to say that if you can’t, you need to hire someone who has mastered English grammar to correct your manuscript before you submit it. For most us that will be impossible, so the only real choice is to master grammar. Now I know you didn’t say we shouldn’t do that; you only indicated that you would not be using a lot of grammatical terms because you wanted to concentrate on the ART of using tenses. That probably makes your lesson a lot more useful to a lot more people. I just want to make the point that anybody who wants to get published, take a serious writing class, or join a serious writers group will likely have to master English at a grammatical level.
And I’m sure there are lots of writing classes and writers’ groups that people have participated in in which they did not have to do this, so I’ll apologize now if I insulted your class or group. Perhaps “serious” is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ve seen the advice to master English at a grammatical level from many publishers, editors, and authors. I expect it of my students, but I teach legal—writing where a missing comma can mean a million dollar lawsuit. I mean that literally, not hyperbolically.
However, as some of the comments by Lisa, Tom, and you (in later posts) show, you really can’t master the art without mastering the grammar. How can you argue with an editor over whether to keep or delete a “had” or a “was” unless you know WHAT each tense does and where they overlap and where they don’t. Obviously I’m not talking about the simple present, past, or future, but rather, for example, the simple past vs. the other 3 past tenses.
For example, some editors would tell you that your example is wrong:
She realizes that she should have seen this coming. Just yesterday, Ben had told her that Fido was out of control. “He ate my work boots,” Ben had said.
An editor might say you can get rid of the “had” in “Ben had told . . . ’ or “Ben had said.” But you are correct, even though it requires knowledge of the various past tenses to argue why. In fact, the only SIMPLE past in your example is “was” and it is being used in a specific way.
Similarly, how can you do the sophisticated things that Tom is talking about—and get it consistently right—if you don’t know the grammar. You’d have to be INCREDIBLY intuitive or understand the concepts without knowing the labels. But even then, how can you talk about these things to other writers or to editors.
Or take Lisa’s example. The use of the so-called conditional, which is really, ACCORDING TO MODERN GRAMMARS, the past subjunctive (I think these grammars are wrong; it is really the past POTENTIAL, but he potential has almost completely dropped out of English grammars since the 19th Century)—thus involving both tense and mood. We may know intuitively or just from taste that it is annoying, BUT what if Fido were dead? Well, we could do a straight flashback, BUT if we wanted to stay with the characters PRESENT thoughts about the past, we could switch to the conditional progressive (AGAIN USING MODERN TERMINOLOGY)—probably just once, depending on exactly how you set up the re-write: “I would wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, thankful that Fido had kept watch over me in the night. He WOULD BE WAGGING his tail in greeting, and I would pat his loyal brow. We would be equally happy that this was a ‘feline-free’ house.” You might get that touch just right intuitively, but you will more likely get it right if you know what the subjunctive/potential past progressive DOES.
Now I know, Jan, that you were trying to avoid all these terms. But I write all of this to make a point. For those who hope to be published someday—especially those who hope to publish a novel someday—only a very few of us may be able to get by without mastering English at the grammatical level or without paying someone to fix our work prior to submission. Seriously ungrammatical work will so distract that it doesn’t have much chance of getting a contract. BUT, it is not that hard to master English grammar. If you try to learn what the terms mean instead of just memorizing them cold, it all makes sense.
Anyway, your lesson was great as always. My post was not to indicate otherwise; it was just to add a completely different point.
Now to try to answer one of your questions. Tenses are very important in non-fiction writing. I can illustrate with the genre I know best, legal writing. This also applies to other categories of technical writing. If you are describing facts, use the past tense unless there is a significant ordering of events in which case you will need to use a combination of past and past perfect (or another of the past tenses): “The defendant struck [past] the plaintiff’s car at 45 miles per hour. Before getting behind the wheel, the defendant had drunk [past perfect] six beers.” Or “The defendant struck [past] the plaintiff’s car at 45 miles per hour. Before getting behind the wheel, the defendant had been drinking [past perfect progressive] for three hours.” The same is true for describing case precedent: “In Smith vs. Jones the court held [past] that the defended was liable.” But ““In Smith vs. Jones the court held [past] that the defended was liable because he had ignored [past perfect] the plaintiff’s requests.” You would be surprised how many beginning law students write “In Smith vs. Jones the court hold [present] that the defended was [or “is”] liable.” It is a little trickier because when describing what we call the RULE of the case, which has ongoing force, the present tense IS correct: “In Smith vs. Jones the court held that a defendant who ignores a plaintiff’s request is liable.”
However, I can also illustrate with another genre I know well: fund raising letters. You will want to tell the reader something that has happened in the past. But—especially if that something is a victory—you must also tell the reader something that is ongoing (the present progressive tense) or that you will do in the future (one of the future tenses). Why should they send you money for something you have already accomplished?
As for my Challenge articles, I have several pieces that are all or virtually all dialogue or monologue. Other than those, all my pieces are in third person past, except for a prose poem which is in first person present and a devotional piece which has mixed tense/person. I think both of the latter worked especially well for their genres. Without trying to check, I’ll bet a lot of devotionals used mixed tenses. So I guess a special consideration for these is to do it well (i.e., purposefully) and not in a way that distracts (i.e., accidentally).