Prefer Simple Tenses over Progressive Tenses
by Tina Blue
March 21, 2002
Progressive tenses are those that combine a form of the auxiliary verb to be with the present participle (ing form) of the main verb:
~He was walking toward the door.
~He is suggesting an equation between the poet and the songbird.
~Death is being seen as a way out of her dilemma.
Now, I am not one to say that this or that grammatical form is "bad" and should never be used in your writing. Grammatical forms exist because they serve a purpose. Just as linking verbs are useful, but should not be overused (see "There 's a Problem with There's--Actually, There ARE Two"), so too is the progressive tense a useful construct--as long as it is not overused.
But like linking verbs, progressive tenses lack the muscularity of simple action verbs. He walked toward the door is a much tighter sentence than He was walking toward the door. Similarly, He suggests an equation between the poet and the songbird and Death is seen as a way out of her dilemma are also sharper sentences than the versions with progressive tenses. The added linking verb (the auxiliary to be) and the ing ending on the main verb soften up the rhythm of the sentence, making it loose and flabby where it should be tight and pointed.
Here are a few examples from papers written for my poetry class at KU. Read the sentences out loud and notice how they are improved by changing the progressive tense to a simple tense.
1. ~In this poem the month of September is symbolizing the decay of life.
~In this poem the month of September symbolizes the decay of life.
2. ~As it is hanging above the child, the almanac seems like a bird of ill omen.
~As it hangs above the child, the almanac seems like a bird of ill omen.
3. ~The grandmother is using her chores as a way of distracting herself and the child from their grief.
~The grandmother uses her chores as a way of distracting herself and the child from their grief.
4. ~The speaker in Robert Frost's "Desert Places" is concerned both with the "nothing" that lies within him and that which is surrounding him.
~The speaker in Robert Frost's "Desert Places" is concerned both with the "nothing" that lies within him aand that which surrounds him.
5. ~This image is suggesting the possibility that the children are symbiotically connected to the snow.
~This image suggests the possibility that the children are symbiotically connected to the ssnow.
The proper time to use the progressive form of a verb is when you need it to emphasize the ongoing nature of an action. Unfortunately, most people learn to write in school, where they must meet specific word counts, even when they have nothing they particularly want to say on an assigned topic. As a result, they learn to pad the length of their essays by tucking in extra words wherever they can.
This motivates them, for example, to use the passive voice when the active voice is clearly preferable, because saying The window was broken by me takes two words more than I broke the window. It also motivates them to use progressive tenses where simple tenses would be more effective, because they get to add an extra word to the verb of each sentence that uses the progressive tense.
Apparently, some people also believe that anything that takes longer to say must be more elegant, so that the extra ing syllable on the main verb seems to add weight to the sentence. It doesn't, of course, but a lot inexperienced writers think that it does.
The next time you start to use the progressive tense, stop and ask yourself if there is an actual reason for it to be there. If there isn't, then opt for the simple tense. You will vastly improve* your prose rhythm by doing so.
*Or as you could, but shouldn't, say: You will be vastly improving your prose rhythm by doing so.