The Time Traveller’s Verbs, Part 1: Telling Campfire Tales

“So we’re waiting for the tyrannosaurus to make up its mind: is it going to charge us, or not? The Captain and I brace ourselves, and…”

“Sergeant! What have I told you about using the present tense to tell stories?” barked a voice from out of the dusk.

Joe made a small grimace, and the children laughed. A tall, slim figure strode up into the light of the small campfire. The flicker of the flames cast her face into sharp relief: thin grey eyebrows, hooked nose, pointed chin. She stood next to Joe and put her hands on her hips as she glared down at him. Joe shifted his bulk on the anti-grav camp chair.

“Captain,” he protested, “the simple present tense lends dramatic emphasis to stories. I was just getting to the good part…”

“Don’t listen to him. He tells a terrible story,” announced the Captain to the children. They laughed again.

“See, Joe? That’s how a time traveller uses verbs. I’m using the present tense because I’m talking about the here and now. How many times have I told you that time travellers need to be precise with their verb tenses? What are you teaching our future recruits here?”

Joe sighed. He looked up at the Captain, and she stared back at him. A twinkle appeared in the Captain’s eye, but it might have been caused by the firelight. Joe rolled his eyes and gestured to the anti-grav chair next to him. She nodded and perched on the edge with a ramrod-straight posture.

“So, who wants to learn about the time traveller’s verbs?” the Captain asked the children. All three of them put up their hands. Mia stretched her arm as far as it could go.

“I’m sure you all know that in time travel, we work with the past, present and future. But you may not know that there are different verb tenses that can be used with each of these. Before we can tell a story about the past, we need to master the verbs in the present. And there are four different types of present tense verbs. How many types are there, recruits?”

“Four!” shouted Mia and Charlie. Kevin just looked on in amusement.

“Excellent,” approved the Captain.

Simple Present

“Let’s start with the simple present. It’s simple because you’re using the base form of the verb. That doesn’t mean it’s simple to use. There are several places where this tense can appear. For example, Sergeant Joe here was using the simple present to tell a story…which is okay as long as you are not telling a story about time travel.”

“See?” said Joe to the children. “I was right.” He puffed up his chest. The Captain smiled wryly as Mia and little Charlie giggled at his antics.

“You can also use the simple present to describe the future if you’re using time words like after, when, or as soon as. Such as, ‘I will retire from time travelling as soon as Joe learns to listen to me.'”

Kevin snorted.

“I do listen, Captain,” said Joe, deliberately looking at his watch. “Because I know that you can also use the simple present to describe something scheduled to happen in the near future. ‘Our next mission starts tonight, so we don’t have a lot of time to talk about verbs.'”

The Captain ignored him.

“Mia,” said the Captain. “Your mother tells me you want more than anything to be a time traveller when you grow up.”

“Yes, ma’am!” said Mia. She saluted.

“Well, then tell me what present tense verb I was just using, and why I was using it.”

Mia squinted in thought. “The verb was tells…and you’re talking about something that my mother just told you?”

“Exactly! Even though I am talking about something that happened in the past, if it just happened, I can use the simple present to tell people about it.” The Captain looked at all three children. “Those are the main uses of the simple present. It’s called simple, but I think it’s the most complicated tense in the present. The next three are easier. Are you ready?”

“Yes, ma’am,” declared Mia and Charlie. Kevin was too busy preparing marshmallows for the fire.


Present Continuous

“The second tense is called present continuous. Sometimes it’s called present progressive. We use this tense to talk about something that’s happening right now and hasn’t finished yet. That’s why it’s called continuous. For this tense, you use the simple present of the verb to be and add the -ing form of another verb to it.”

“Captain,” said Joe, looking at the skies as a UNS spacecraft flew by.

“Here’s a great one for you: ‘We are talking about time traveller verbs.'”

“We really need to get going…” said Joe.

“You can also use the present continuous for a scheduled future event that hasn’t happened yet, so we are continuing to wait for it: ‘We are leaving soon, Joe, so stop interrupting me.'”

Present Perfect

“Captain,” said Joe in a low, urgent tone as the children switched their attention to the food. Kevin was passing around the marshmallow-topped sticks.

The Captain glanced at him.

Joe gestured at the darkening skies. “We’ve messed up the timeline, and we need to fix it.”

“I had my suspicions after seeing the anti-grav chair designs,” murmured the Captain. “You’re right, we have changed something.”

By this time, Kevin was listening intently. “What do you mean, ‘We have changed something’?”

“Great observation skills, Kevin,” said Joe. “You’ll make a fine time traveller someday. The Captain and I were coming up with an example for the present perfect, the third verb tense. This one uses the simple present of the verb have and the past participle of an action verb. A perfect tense describes a completed action – it’s like the opposite of a continuous tense. The present perfect tense describes an action that has been completed at some vague time in the past, but is relevant to what is happening in the present.”

“So,” said the Captain smoothly, “‘We have changed something’ is a good example to use when the change affects something in the present.”

“But what’s changed? And what did it affect?” asked Kevin, his forgotten marshmallow burning in the fire. Charlie started to frown in bewilderment.

“Oh, it’s just an example,” said the Captain. “Joe’s been right to remind me of the time, we need to go now. Sorry, kids.”

“But we haven’t learned all the verbs!” protested Mia, her mouth full of marshmallow.

Present Perfect Continuous

The Captain stood up. “I’ll leave you with a homework assignment, recruits. You can think about it while Joe and I are gone for the next few minutes on our mission. I want you to come up with a sentence in the final tense, the present perfect continuous. This tense is used to talk about an event that started earlier and is still ongoing in the present. Use the simple present of the verb have with been and an -ing form of a verb. Good luck!”

The Captain and Sergeant Joe walked away into the darkness as the children stared at each other.

“They‘ve been acting really weird,” said Kevin. Mia nodded as she put an arm around Charlie.

“I’ve been keeping an eye out for Zardonian spaceships,” said Joe as soon as they were out of earshot.

“I’ve been scanning with my comm unit too, but there’s no sign of them. Only ours.”

“So it’s back to the past again. Da Vinci this time?” asked Joe.

“We have no choice. I told you not to eat that apple,” said the Captain, as they entered the time machine.

“But I was hungry!”

Back at the campfire, the children looked up as a blue flash lit the night. Then something changed…


Tune in next week for the continuing story of The Time Traveller’s Verbs, when we will journey into the past!

This series of posts is dedicated to Shelley Sackier, blogger extraordinaire, who asked me to write about perfect and continuous verbs.

Today’s picture is from my talented son. πŸ™‚

18 thoughts on “The Time Traveller’s Verbs, Part 1: Telling Campfire Tales

  1. a really amusing story, intriguing, too; cannot wait for the next installment! oh…wait…this was a grammar lesson…what a great way to do so! Encourage your son to produce more art to go with the story!


  2. This is absolutely perfect, Sue! And just to let you know, this post is now rattling off in my printer and will shortly be pasted to the walls of my little writing cubby. I plan to refer back to it until the day arrives when I can quote it all verbatim.
    Brilliant. And a huge thank you.
    And a part two to boot. What a lucky day for me! πŸ™‚


    1. I’m feeling good about helping you come up with new and improved wallpaper. πŸ™‚ You’re absolutely welcome, Shelley. Thanks for the suggestion. And you’re especially lucky – Part 3 will be on the way soon. Enjoy!


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