The Critique Circle Blog

The CC Blog is written by members of our community.
Do you want to write a blog post? Send Us a blog request

Menu
  • View all blogs
  • Go to thread
Jul
2
2020

The Past Progressive Pit of Doom -- by Douglas Phillips

The Past Progressive Pit of Doom

It was snowing outside, but with nowhere to go I was staying indoors. I was writing. Poorly, it turns out because while I was looking for joy, I was finding only despair. I was using too many past progressives.

Do you see this in your writing? (Full disclosure, I have. Hopeful note, I’m getting better.)

It’s called the past progressive and it’s formed from the verb “to be” (am, are, was, were), plus a second verb, plus “-ing” slapped on the end for good measure. I was writing. I was finding. There’s also a present progressive and future progressive, but let’s focus on the past because that’s the verb tense most authors use. When I critique, past progressive is one of the most common mistakes I see. Sometimes it forms the first sentence of a chapter! Ugh.

Past progressive is a major turnoff for readers. Why? What’s wrong with progressive verbs? Nothing, grammatically speaking, but it’s weak writing and overused. Those “-ing” verbs get repetitive. All those “was” sentences get boring!

My personal theory: authors who write in past tense use the past progressive to make their narrative sound more like it’s happening now. If I write, John was searching for clues, we can see John rummaging through drawers and closets, whereas if I write, John searched for clues, he’s done! Didn’t find a thing. No drama there.

There are legitimate uses of the progressive tense, but only when it’s important to distinguish that an event is ongoing. Otherwise, try to reduce your use. If you do, you’ll discover two benefits: your vocabulary will expand, and you’ll create more interesting passages for readers. John scoured the room for clues. That’s better, right?

Are you making this common mistake? Let’s find out. First, some data. I examined several submissions to Critique Circle to compute what I call the PPP, or Past Progressive Percentage and found it ranges from 0.1% to 0.9%. That is, text like “was xxx-ing” occurred about 18 times in a 2000-word chapter (in the worst case).*

Want to check your own work? If you use Microsoft Word, View the Navigation Pane, and click the down arrow at the end of the search bar. Pick Advanced Find. Turn on the checkbox for Wild Cards, then type the following text in the search bar: was ??ing . This will find 2-letter progressive cases like “was doing” or “was being”. Note the count of how many you found. Then add one more ? and search again. You’ll find cases like “was saying” or “was crying”. Add that number to your sum. Then add another ? and search again for cases like “was looking” or “was opening”. You get the picture. By the time you get to 10 or 11 question marks, you’ll have found all the possible progressives in your work.** Then, just sum the occurrences and divide by the total number of words in your document (Word displays this number in the Status bar at the bottom). That’s your personal PPP. If you’re down around 0.1% or 0.2%, congratulate yourself. Well done! If you’re above 0.5%, you’ve got some work to do. Seek out better words. Eliminate a few cases of “was”. Anything above 1.0% spells trouble, but at least you know about it now. In another blog post, I’ll take on another “-ing” issue: the present participle.

* I didn’t bother to search for “were xxx-ing” or “wasn’t xxx-ing” because these are less common and don’t really change the purpose of the parameter.
** This search should work in a single step, using was [A-z]{2,11}ing .  Unfortunately, there’s a bug in Microsoft Word that causes this legitimate search expression to do the same thing as 11 question marks. I’ve notified Microsoft. So far, no answer.

Posted by Douglas Phillips 2 Jul at 00:47
Do you want to write for the Critique Circle Blog? Send us a message!

Responses to this blog

Amichelle 2 Jul at 04:28  
Thanks... looking for was xxx-ings will be a fun editing exercise. Nice way to raise one's awareness of what can become a bad habit.
Marisaw 2 Jul at 04:43  
I must say, this sentence from that article had me spitting chips:

"When I critique, past progressive is one of the most common mistakes I see."

Past progressive is NOT a mistake!! I know the article goes on to explain they mean that over-using the progressive tenses is bad, but I worry that newbie writers will take the message from that opening paragraph and not study the rest.

There must be hundreds of blogs out there, telling writers that "was - ing" is bad, bad, bad, and it's so annoying. If you need to show that something is continuous then the progressive tenses are exactly what you need, and it upsets me to see that nuance removed from the language because of that misconception.
Joebtuba 2 Jul at 05:06  
It seems like the antecedent verb is a necessary part of past progressive. Does that mean there's a different tense to describe writing in the past tense but using a present conjugation without one of those verbs?

Beg pardon for requesting an English lesson
Harpalycus 2 Jul at 06:01  
A fascinating excursion into this strange new world where writers are slowly transmuting themselves into mathematicians. The search and word count functions have much to answer for.

I'm with Marisaw on this. My instinctive reaction is not again. Another rule. Another edict from the Style Police.

Before I continue, let me assure you I have no personal axe to grind regarding the past progressive. I ran a search through my present offering and found a Past Progressive Percentage* of 0.3 (This response has been declared an AFZ**) so I certainly don’t feel personally threatened.

Anything can be overused. Anything. Anything at all. You can see when anything is overused because it becomes obvious to you. That’s really all you need to know.

If you don’t notice it, and ‘normal’ readers don’t notice it (I exclude those strange critiquers for reasons I shall make clear below), it probably isn’t a problem.

It snowed overnight. With nowhere to go I stayed indoors and scribbled in my notebook. Somewhat ineffectually, because where I looked for joy, I discovered only despair. I groaned. I had overused the past tense.

All those ‘ed’ endings are so repetitive and boring

But singling out certain patterns - the dreaded ‘ly’ ending, just the word was, that ineffably evil little ‘that’- sensitises critiquers (not the average reader who couldn’t care tuppence) to its existence. They begin to notice it. Standard psychological priming. They expunge it from their own work and notice they are no longer noticing it. Whereupon, with the enthusiasm of the convert they tell all and sundry how their own work is so much better and tighter than before.

But before giving it any credence, I would like to see actual evidence that the following assertions can be justified.
Past progressive is a major turnoff for readers.
It is weak writing and overused.
It is repetitive and boring.

It is significant that the example given, to convince us of this, has a Present Progressive Percentage of 6.5! Thirteen times greater than the supposed acceptable maximum. That’s rather gilding the lily.
I was going to write a blog about it myself, until I found it was getting boring.
(Past Progressive Percentage: 11.8%).
Thanks for a stimulating blog.
Regards,
Harp
*As given the calculation does not give a percentage. You need to multiply the fraction produced by 100.
**Acronym Free Zone

Brinker 2 Jul at 06:44  
Joebtuba
It seems like the antecedent verb is a necessary part of past progressive. Does that mean there's a different tense to describe writing in the past tense but using a present conjugation without one of those verbs?
I'm a grammarian and can hold my own with some of the best of them, but I can't quite work out what you're asking. Can you explain the question a bit more?
__________________
Faith manages.
-Michael Straczynski

Blandcorp 2 Jul at 09:44  
Brinker
Joebtuba
It seems like the antecedent verb is a necessary part of past progressive. Does that mean there's a different tense to describe writing in the past tense but using a present conjugation without one of those verbs?
I'm a grammarian and can hold my own with some of the best of them, but I can't quite work out what you're asking. Can you explain the question a bit more?
Squinting, I would guess that might mean

It seems like the auxiliary verb is a necessary part of past progressive. Does that mean there's a different tense to describe in writing the past tense but using a continuous aspect without one of those auxiliary verbs?
As far as I know, strictly speaking no.

In practice, yes. Lemme grab something from my shelf:

Kristopher Reisz, The pilgrims of Parthen
Things were falling apart on Earth. The country's hairline cracks were widening. Politicians used reports of parthen — of the wonderful, strange city it revealed — to keep people frightened and stupid.
Arguably, the italicized part should have been past progressive too, because I think the image the character goes for is ongoing propaganda as everything breaks down. However, much as with the past perfect, writers and readers often find it sufficient to set the mood, so to speak, with a couple of sentences using the full on, auxiliary-verb-demanding tense, and then continue with simple past and trust the readers to understand the syntactically unstated precedence or aspect.

Cheers.
__________________
Tgreen 2 Jul at 11:37  
Great article!

It's refreshing to see that I'm not the only one who considers the overuse of the -ing form as poor writing.

One thing I would add - the reason why "It was snowing last night" is weaker than "It snowed last night" is mainly because the second form saves a word, and both are weaker than "In the morning, a fresh layer of snow covered the garden," as showing the result of past action is much more vivid than narrating the action away.
Blandcorp 2 Jul at 11:59  
Tgreen
the reason why "It was snowing last night" is weaker than "It snowed last night" is mainly because the second form saves a word, and both are weaker than "In the morning, a fresh layer of snow covered the garden," as showing the result of past action is much more vivid than narrating the action away.
Lol, this reminds me of that bit of internet slang, "not sure if srs"

Anyway, apart from the main reason of saving a word, is there any other reason, in your view, that past progressive might be weak (as opposed to wrong for a particular situation)?

Cheers.
__________________
Tgreen 2 Jul at 12:04  
Blandcorp
Tgreen
the reason why "It was snowing last night" is weaker than "It snowed last night" is mainly because the second form saves a word, and both are weaker than "In the morning, a fresh layer of snow covered the garden," as showing the result of past action is much more vivid than narrating the action away.
Lol, this reminds me of that bit of internet slang, "not sure if srs"

Anyway, apart from the main reason of saving a word, is there any other reason, in your view, that past progressive might be weak (as opposed to wrong for a particular situation)?

Cheers.
Because it intuitively pushes the activity into the background, marking it as not that important - if something has time to be described as in the middle of happening, then it's intuitively neither urgent nor impactful (since if it had an impact, the impact would be talked about, rather than that the activity was happening).
I mean, it's perfectly fine for as long as the described activity is actually background information, for the main-focus activity, it almost never works.
Blandcorp 2 Jul at 12:11  
Interesting — genuinely so. Readers' experiences are different in regards to shade/nuance of word choice, and this argument is not one I've heard before, believe it or not.

I would say though that one of us is being eccentric here. My intuition doesn't consider the progressive aspect as necessarily indicating background. It simply indicates the continuation of an activity, and that in itself may be a salient fact, of a salient activity.

Cheers.
__________________
Tgreen 2 Jul at 12:18  
Blandcorp
I would say though that one of us is being eccentric here. My intuition doesn't consider the progressive aspect as necessarily indicating background. It simply indicates the continuation of an activity, and that in itself may be a salient fact, of a salient activity.

Cheers.
I will try to demonstrate it on an example:
John was searching the room -> Intuitively, something will happen before he's done because otherwise, there would be no reason to use the -ing form and that something is naturally more important than him searching the room since that something will have an immediate impact, hence him searching the room is background information merely by the act of it being written in this form

John searched the room -> there's nothing more important going to happen in the meantime because he's done already and we are moving on with the story
Blandcorp 2 Jul at 12:39  
Is it the syntax or the semantics driving the expectation though that something more important is about to happen?

Here's a different example. Imagine that Marge walked into a room and found that Homer was strangling Bart. Arguably, that's a very, if not the most, important bit she sees in that scene. Also the progressive aspect is important here: Homer is not done strangling, and her interference is meaningful.

We could argue, in my example, whether Marge's presumed intervention to save her son would be the most important thing happening or not, but I don't think that's a very useful conversation. Certainly, it is not very useful to rank events in a story as more "important" the further on they are in the timeline, not if we want to make this kind of "importance" the deciding factor of what we include in a story. If we had done so, we'd just have to write "The End" forever.

Cheers.
__________________
Tgreen 2 Jul at 12:41  
Blandcorp
Is it the syntax or the semantics driving the expectation though that something more important is about to happen?

Here's a different example. Imagine that Marge walked into a room and found that Homer was strangling Bart. Arguably, that's a very, if not the most, important bit she sees in that scene. Also the progressive aspect is important here: Homer is not done strangling, and her interference is meaningful.

We could argue, in my example, whether Marge's presumed intervention to save her son would be the most important thing happening or not, but I don't think that's a very useful conversation. Certainly, it is not very useful to rank events in a story as more "important" the further on they are in the timeline, not if we want to make this kind of "importance" the deciding factor of what we include in a story. If we had done so, we'd just have to write "The End" forever.

Cheers.
Importance in terms of reader's attention, not overall story importance - for the reader's immediate attention in the example, the most important thing is the incoming reaction of Marge, which is what will move the story. This example nicely shows how the -ing form makes the activity a background.
Blandcorp 2 Jul at 12:43  
I don't think we understand background the same way at all. The activity in my example absolutely cannot be a background. It is the most salient bit of the scene.

Cheers.
__________________
Marisaw 2 Jul at 12:48  
Tgreen
Blandcorp
Is it the syntax or the semantics driving the expectation though that something more important is about to happen?

Here's a different example. Imagine that Marge walked into a room and found that Homer was strangling Bart. Arguably, that's a very, if not the most, important bit she sees in that scene. Also the progressive aspect is important here: Homer is not done strangling, and her interference is meaningful.
Importance in terms of reader's attention, not overall story importance - for the reader's immediate attention in the example, the most important thing is the incoming reaction of Marge, which is what will move the story.
But I think the point is, in that example, the progressive form of the verb is absolutely essential. It's not weak, it's not a mistake, it's not boring - so none of those generalisations is true, if the progressive form is being used in its proper place. However you want to label it, there are times when being able to convey continuous action is critical to the reader's understanding of a scene.

I've seen some writers take the "weak" message so seriously, they would turn that sentence into tortuous knots rather than say "Homer was strangling Bart".

Tgreen 2 Jul at 13:03  
Marisaw
Tgreen
Blandcorp
Is it the syntax or the semantics driving the expectation though that something more important is about to happen?

Here's a different example. Imagine that Marge walked into a room and found that Homer was strangling Bart. Arguably, that's a very, if not the most, important bit she sees in that scene. Also the progressive aspect is important here: Homer is not done strangling, and her interference is meaningful.
Importance in terms of reader's attention, not overall story importance - for the reader's immediate attention in the example, the most important thing is the incoming reaction of Marge, which is what will move the story.
But I think the point is, in that example, the progressive form of the verb is absolutely essential. It's not weak, it's not a mistake, it's not boring - so none of those generalisations is true, if the progressive form is being used in its proper place. However you want to label it, there are times when being able to convey continuous action is critical to the reader's understanding of a scene.

I've seen some writers take the "weak" message so seriously, they would turn that sentence into tortuous knots rather than say "Homer was strangling Bart".
I never said it's never correct, and yes, there are times when the best way to convey the background is through some continuous action. But it is weak - in comparison "When Marge entered the room, Homer was strangling Bart" makes the act of strangling much weaker (since it's the background) than something like "As Marge entered the room, Homer grabbed Bart's throat, squeezing tight."

And I hope you're not suggesting that we shouldn't discuss here more advanced writing techniques just because a newer writer might misinterpret the discussion.

Blandcorp
I don't think we understand background the same way at all. The activity in my example absolutely cannot be a background. It is the most salient bit of the scene.

Cheers.
Not when written like this - in the example written, in terms of the scene, it's clearly the background to what Marge is about to do.
Blandcorp 2 Jul at 13:12  
Tgreen
Blandcorp
I don't think we understand background the same way at all. The activity in my example absolutely cannot be a background. It is the most salient bit of the scene.

Cheers.
Not when written like this - in the example written, in terms of the scene, it's clearly the background to what Marge is about to do.
As I said before, I don't think we can go much further than stating our own understanding here. If you are committed to believing that progressive aspect signals "background", I guess you will keep at it.

I don't think however this is a very meaningful concept of "background" that you have there. Apparently, all it takes for something to be background is to be written in the progressive aspect. This is a syntactic criterion for something which is very much an issue of meaning instead.

Tgreen
"As Marge entered the room, Homer grabbed Bart's throat, squeezing tight."
Also, this can be objectively wrong if what the scene the author wants to convey is NOT that Homer only started when Marge entered, but that she walked in on him strangling (btw there's them -ing progressive forms ). This reminds me of the tortuous turns Marisaw mentioned.

Cheers.
__________________
Tgreen 2 Jul at 13:14  
Blandcorp
This is a syntactic criterion for something which is very much an issue of meaning instead.
The syntax is the way the author transfers meaning to the reader, so I don't see how this is a problem - I've been trying to explain why I think this particular syntax creates the specific meaning I said, that's all.
Blandcorp 2 Jul at 13:17  
That's true, but the English syntax I'm aware of has no categories for background or saliency. At least, at the moment I can't think of one among the tenses. So I misspoke; what I should have said is, you seem to use a syntactic criterion to resolve a meaning problem that English syntax does not cover.

EDIT: and, reading back carefully, it is also a meaning issue that English syntax cannot cover unambiguously. You are right that in English syntax we have unambiguous ways to state an event preceded another. This is a very simple issue of meaning on which, at least on Earth at human speeds, there is rarely disagreement. And as such there aren't many ways to say it. What should be important or salient in a scene is somewhat more subjective, and open to many ways of expression.

Cheers.
__________________
Marisaw 2 Jul at 13:20  
Tgreen

And I hope you're not suggesting that we shouldn't discuss here more advanced writing techniques just because a newer writer might misinterpret the discussion.
Not at all. I was objecting to the fact that the author of the article dismissed the progressive form as "weak' as if it was always weak and therefore always bad - and your post appeared to say exactly the same thing. You seem to be suggesting that if you find yourself using the progressive form, you should stop and make strenuous efforts to avoid it at all costs. I think that's a blanket generalisation and rubbishes a perfectly good verb form which writers don't need to be afraid of.
Cwotus 2 Jul at 13:42  
Just to add my own 2¢ worth, the weakness that I see most commonly with past progressive, because it is a problem when it is clearly misused, is in following up a perfectly ordinary sentence or independent clause such as "It was snowing last night" with an incomplete sentence containing the gerund as some kind of emphasis, "Snowing to beat the band." (Never mind that the cliché is a sort of ... um ... cherry on top of that mess.) All of that is a sort of compounded weakness if there is no particular point to the past progressive in the first place: What happened while "it was snowing"? If nothing of moment occurs to be mentioned in that interval, then the writing was just a cliché on top of wrong on top of bad phrasing.

I'm in general agreement with Marisaw and Blandcorp that the tense is not one to be avoided when it best applies. As far as background or salience to the meaning:

Marge walked into the room, and Homer was strangling Bart.
Homer was strangling Bart, and Marge walked into the room.

The action is identical: Marge entered a room as Homer was in the act of strangling Bart. The difference I'd be likely to read into these otherwise identical sentences is a POV: Does the context of the preceding text indicate that Marge has been a focus of attention? That's what I would expect from the first sentence. The story I'm reading is about Marge and her activity "and suddenly" she sees something unexpected (one hopes). Alternatively, the second sentence indicates (to me) a focus on the activity occurring between Homer and Bart, and then a new player enters the arena, so let's see what effect this has on things. In neither of these cases is the act of one parent strangling the child "background", but it may not have been in focus (in the first case) until the MC arrives to witness it. In neither case is past progressive incorrect; it's the only way the scene works at all, I think.
Magnusholm 2 Jul at 22:27  
Your beautiful regex expression was [A-z]{2,11}ing works perfectly on regex101.com/



Dougp 3 Jul at 03:35  
To clarify, I did say there are legitimate uses of the past progressive - when the action is ongoing. For example, in a first-person chapter 1, we must have: The wound was deep. I was dying. as opposed to: I died which makes no sense and ends the story before it starts. You can think of a dozen more, right? Go forth and write a blog to show us! Accomplished writers don't experience this issue because they've learned to vary verb tense, vocabulary, and sentence length (among a hundred other things) to produce quality prose. But many beginning authors depend on CC to get feedback for their first work. Overuse of the past progressive is a common flaw. It's an issue I found in my own work, and I can say with conviction that it's a joy to discover alternatives.
Marisaw 3 Jul at 06:01  
Dougp
To clarify, I did say there are legitimate uses of the past progressive - when the action is ongoing.
I know you did, that wasn't my concern.

My concern was that, in these days of short attention spans, you chose to start the article by trumpeting that the past progressive was "a pit of doom", "a mistake", "a major turnoff", "weak writing", "over-used", "repetitive" and "boring".

Too many newbie writers would've run screaming from the room, swearing never to use the past progressive again, before reaching the paragraph where you admit that actually, it's fine when it's used for its proper purpose (i.e. when the action is ongoing).

I wouldn't have made any comment if you had started the article with something like, "The past progressive performs one very useful function - to show that action is ongoing. However, used at other times, it's "a pit of doom" etc etc .
Dougp 3 Jul at 15:43  
Pit of doom is humor. I sprinkle humor into my writing, many authors do!
Marisaw 3 Jul at 23:09  
Dougp
Pit of doom is humor. I sprinkle humor into my writing, many authors do!
I know that. However it sets the tone that the past progressive is a bad thing per se, that's all.
Dcrichlow 5 Jul at 06:57  
DougP,
I recently got hammered on using the past progressive and I have to admit, searching for other verbs did tighten up my writing. But having someone else remind me of the lesson always helpful. Also knowing when it's appropriate to use the past progressive is useful. Thank you.
Troglodyte 6 Jul at 18:40  
Doug, old friend, great job of starting a conversation. (Don't tackle racial injustice or environmental concerns. You'll crash the site.)

I've been re-reading my first two books, and I'm shocked. Shocked, I tell you! Past progressive overuse is riding the top of the list. The nice thing about self-publishing is that I can and will, at some point, correct myself.

Best wishes and kudos on your success.

Robin
Dougp 7 Jul at 02:08  
Thanks Robin! I love your stories - pure fun.
Onalimb 7 Jul at 12:12  
Some years ago, I was pushed by other beginners into making the same mistake about past progressives that this blog does. Marisaw, Cwotus and Blandcorp have pointed out the problem. Past progressive is used for what the name says—it's meant to indicate, in the past tense, action in progress—simultaneity, rather than sequence. I was fortunate in that a writer buddy, a pro with several credits to his name, helped me out before I gained another bad habit built on ignorance.

I suspect that part of the reason that amateur writers jump onto the past progressive is the 'ing.' They confuse the use of past progressive, which is valid in the right circumstances, with the use of gerunds. Gerunds are also valid, but tend to be overused by beginners. (I was a gerund abuser.) In much the same way that beginners think that "show don't tell" means they should never use exposition, or that "use active voice" means only use active voice, they think the presence of 'ing' is a red flag.

__________________
“Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility.” Bertrand Russell

Marisaw 7 Jul at 13:06  
Onalimb
Some years ago, I was pushed by other beginners into making the same mistake about past progressives that this blog does.
To be fair, the blog does not make a mistake about past progressives. The correct information is given - the only problem is that it's not given until after the dramatic opening, and then it's just mentioned in passing - so I could imagine some readers would miss its importance.
Onalimb 7 Jul at 13:46  
Marisaw
Onalimb
Some years ago, I was pushed by other beginners into making the same mistake about past progressives that this blog does.
To be fair, the blog does not make a mistake about past progressives. The correct information is given - the only problem is that it's not given until after the dramatic opening, and then it's just mentioned in passing - so I could imagine some readers would miss its importance.
Thanks for the clarification. I browsed it (having read it months earlier and thinking I recalled it) as well as the comments. Obviously, I didn't read it carefully enough.
__________________
“Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility.” Bertrand Russell

Marisaw 7 Jul at 22:48  
Onalimb


Thanks for the clarification. I browsed it (having read it months earlier and thinking I recalled it) as well as the comments. Obviously, I didn't read it carefully enough.
....and this is my concern. People do browse on the internet rather than read carefully, so the first impression of the message is the most important.
Onalimb 8 Jul at 08:59  
Marisaw
Onalimb


Thanks for the clarification. I browsed it (having read it months earlier and thinking I recalled it) as well as the comments. Obviously, I didn't read it carefully enough.
....and this is my concern. People do browse on the internet rather than read carefully, so the first impression of the message is the most important.
That is true and a concern. I'm also reminded (all too often) that dealing with anything while at home means dealing with all the interruptions.
__________________
“Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility.” Bertrand Russell

Lant 10 Jul at 06:56  
As a newbie, and what is more, a lame duck with my English, I am going to set you all at ease: your hairsplitting is a revelation for me. Not only the good care for newbies of Marisaw, and the fine distinction Tgreen makes between background and salient but the punchline title Dough gave to his blog as well are such as Gods discussing how to maintain an ordered cosmos on the Olympos mountain. And how can I be but in awe and silent when poets are praising the lyre and the bow. Cheers.

Respond to this blog

Please log in or create a free Critique Circle account to respond to this blog


Member submitted content is © individual members.
Other material is ©2003-2020 critiquecircle.com
Back to top