Writing 101: How to Write in the Past Tense

The vast majority of fiction books are written in the past tense. Almost every anecdote ever shared is told in the past tense. It's a tiny change from right now to just a moment ago, but writing in the past tense confuses many authors who might otherwise be wonderful.

It's common, so writing in the past tense should be easy. It should be second nature. But there is a big problem with the past: the word had.

All the Words We Had

Inserting the word had into a sentence does not automatically mean you're writing in the past tense. In fact, in many cases that I've observed, it only makes those sentences grammatically incorrect.

It's tricky, because often had looks and sounds right. See if you can spot the incorrect grammar in the examples:

I had walked over there yesterday.

You had saw that when?

It had sound like thunder in my ears.

She had said that last week, though.

Which one is right? If you said none of them, you might not need this lesson because that's right. But if you thought that any of those examples were correct, you've got to start re-thinking the many ways in which you let had sneak into your writing. 

It has an ugly way of creeping into books, the word had. So many authors stick it into sentences to make them past tense, or maybe to reinforce the past tense, and the word ends up sticking out like a sore thumb. But if you always know exactly what had means and how it ought to be used, you won't make this mistake. 

Had is indeed past tense. It's the past tense of the verb to have, which is an extremely common irregular verb. In the present, to have becomes has (example: John has a bad attitude).  In the future, to have needs a little help. Usually, it's used with the word will to become something that hasn't yet occurred (example: I will have three of them by next week). 

And in the past...well, had sneaks in. Remember the examples from earlier? It's time to find out why exactly they're all wrong. 

I had walked over there yesterday

This grammar error is common, and you'll see and hear it all the time. For some reason, had is often inserted in front of verbs that are already in the past tense. Walked is something that happened in the past already, so had is totally unnecessary. Correctly, the sentence reads like this:

I walked over there yesterday. 

Remember that sentences have a subject and a verb, a subject and a verb. It's not subject, verb verb. When you already have a verb in the sentence, you don't need to double up and add the verb had. It becomes redundant, and it disrupts the flow of the words. 

 It had sound like thunder in my ears.

Writers often stick had into a sentence because they're forgetting to put the real verb into the proper tense. Take the extra verb out completely, and convert the right one to the right tense:

It sounded like thunder in my ears

When it comes to writing past tense the right way, there's one simple thing to remember: had is often unnecessary. Check for your verbs. If they're not irregular, chances are good that you don't need had at all. Try reading the sentence both ways. Eliminate had and read; put it in and read and see which feels better. Usually, your decision will be the right one.

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  1. All of those sentences made me cringe when I read them so I think (hope) I have it down. But I should add "had" to my list of words to search for and delete, since it's usually unnecessary.

  2. Good idea! The search function is one of the best inventions for writers.

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