From Time to Time Part 2: How Long and How Often?

26 Aug

big ben


This POST discusses the representation of TIME in narrative… although I must begin with a bit of grammar … and some tedious terminology.

But don’t let that confuse you. doubtful

Because it’s the ideas, rather than the terminology, that count …

In many languages, including English, verbs are used to indicate actions in TIME, and this is done via a number of tense and aspect combinations. Tenses locate actions along a linear timeline, revealing whether these actions are PAST, PRESENT, or FUTURE actions:


ASPECT is different. ASPECT provides extra information about actions wherever they sit along this timeline. ASPECT reveals duration, recurrence and regularity of actions and is, therefore, important to the PACE of a narrative.

Let’s consider two major VERB ASPECTS:

1. PERFECTIVE ASPECT – which describes an action that was, is or will be complete or limited.

                           Joe sat outside the Principal’s Office.

                           I smile nervously.

                           We will wait.

                           They have arrived

(NB: The term PERFECTIVE is occasionally confused with the word PERFECT, which is used to describe tenses.)

2. CONTINUOUS (PROGRESSIVE) ASPECT – which, as the name suggests, describes an action that was, is or will be on-going, or continuing for an extended period of time. (NB: The CONTINUOUS ASPECT always requires the PRESENT PARTICIPLE ending – ing),

                           Joe was sitting outside the Principal’s Office.

                          I am smiling nervously.

                         We will be waiting.

                         They have been arriving.

BUT, enough about grammar and, instead, more about why ASPECT is important when writing narrative. Well, for a start, look at the examples above:

Joe sat outside the Principal’s Office describes a closed event in the SIMPLE PAST TENSE; he might have sat down then got straight up and ran away. On the other hand, Joe was sitting outside the Principal’s Office suggests a longer wait, perhaps a wait during which something else might happen, someone else might join him:


I smile nervously in the PRESENT TENSE and using the PERFECTIVE, could refer to a single moment of smiling, whereas I am smiling nervously using the CONTINUOUS gives an impression of a longer period of smiling, long enough perhaps to involve a degree of introspection.

They have been arriving using the CONTINUOUS ASPECT (and the PRESENT PERFECT TENSE) suggests a process of arriving over a period of time, perhaps a number of arrivals over a period of time, as opposed to They have arrived using the PERFECTIVE ASPECT, which does not suggest any extended period of arrival …

Perhaps they have all come together:


So, if you want an action to seem more harrowing, more time-consuming, or a journey to seem to be more tiring, a wait to be more nerve wracking, a worry to turn into worrying, or the search for a demon hiding upstairs to seem more frightening, then slow the pace and make it all last longer using the CONTINUOUS ASPECT.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses a CONTINUOUS ASPECT sandwiched between PAST TENSE PERFECTIVES to highlight Darcy’s slow emotional catharsis:

darcy and elizabeth1



Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise.


 Also, regarding affairs of the heart, Dusty Springfield’s song Wishin’ and Hopin’ uses a CONTINUOUS ASPECT to describe the long period of infatuation and then follows it up, with the advice, in the PERFECTIVE, to immediately become more proactive and do something about it:

Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying,
Planning and dreaming each night of his charms,
That won’t get you into his arms,
So if you’re looking to find love you can share,
All you gotta do, is hold him and kiss him, and love him
And show him that you care.

As well as slowing pace and emphasizing extended time, the CONTINUOUS ASPECT can also be used to portray large open spaces, spaces that go on and on into the distance. A tourist writing in The Melrose Mirror about a trip to the Banff region of Canada chose to stress the vastness of the area via a CONTINUOUS ASPECT:

… we breezed right though the entry gate to Banff National Park … The road climbs steadily, winding and bending, struggling up … The 35-mile drive between Banff and Lake Louise … is a pretty drive, winding through the forests, brushing up against towering cliffs, diminished by soaring mountains … we saw no wildlife … Above all it was a peaceful place. Soaring pines, aspens rustling in the breeze, mountains in every direction …

So, a CONTINUOUS ASPECTS slows narrative pace and stretches time and space. On the other hand a fast-paced, quick-action sequence, or a complete/terminated action does not benefit from a CONTINUOUS ASPECT. In Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the PERFECTIVE ASPECT describes a rapid and completed series of events:


In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown uses the PERFECTIVE to describe a rapid series of actions, with the present participles providing the stark contrast as the curator’s mind functions at a slower pace:

As he anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars … The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the long silencer through the bars, directly at the curator.

In Suicide in the Trenches Sassoon uses the PERFECTIVE to describe a tragically complete set of actions:

I knew a simple soldier boy,
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

But this is all generalization. A CONTINUOUS ASPECT can be used to describe a rapid sequence of events:

falling1 (Actually, that’s a bit of a cheat, because the short, irregular sentences and the close proximity of the verbs both increase the pace and counter the reduction of pace inherent in the CONTINUOUS ASPECT)

So, clearly, ASPECT reveals duration of actions. But what about repeated actions, actions that are not so much continuous over a period of time, but are rather repeated over time?

very doubtfulWell … this requires another sneaky bit of grammar …

Essentially, verbs that do not display a PERFECTIVE ASPECT are IMPERFECT. So the CONTINUOUS ASPECT is an IMPERFECT ASPECT. But there is also another IMPERFECT ASPECT, which is called the HABITUAL. It is used to describe repeated actions in the PAST and it is expressed in the following two ways:

He used to visit his aunt.

He would leave the house at exactly two minutes past seven and arrive at the station just in time to catch the early train.

Converted to the SIMPLE PAST tense these sentences would become:

He visited his aunt.

He left the house at exactly two minutes past seven and arrived at the station just in time to catch the early train.

But these latter versions may equally refer to an action that occurred once or several times. They lack any indication of a repeated or HABITUAL action that is clear in the first two sentences.

In Heart of Darkness (Conrad, 1902), Marlow describes his numerous meetings with a ‘lank, bony, yellow-faced’ foreman:

He would rave about pigeons. After work hours he used sometimes to come over from his hut for a talk about his children and his pigeons; at work, when he had to crawl in the mud under the bottom of the steamboat, he would tie up that beard of his in a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose.

Of course, if you would prefer not to use these HABITUAL constructions, you can, instead, make the repeated nature of an action obvious by adding an adverbial phrase such as:

He visited his aunt every Tuesday.

Every morning, he left the house at exactly two minutes past seven and arrived at the station just in time to catch the early train.

The decision as to whether to use a HABITUAL ASPECT or just a simple PAST TENSE plus adverbials is a matter of style. And some authors do shy away from the use of HABITUAL ASPECT constructions, seeing them as unnecessarily awkward.

It’s up to you.

OKIn fact it’s all up to you.

You control the progression and pace of your narrative. ASPECT is just one of the devices that you can use to achieve that control.


The next post will discuss Retrospection and other departures from Linear Time … departures that have been referred to as Mental Time Travel.



One Response to “From Time to Time Part 2: How Long and How Often?”

  1. Jean Levy August 26, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on Time and Memory.

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