Probably the first idea that comes to mind on the subject of verbs is tense. In an earlier post (Time and Tense), I explained briefly the organization of the six tenses in modern English and laid them out one to the next across a timeline. In addition to tense, though, verbs take on another feature, called aspect, which is just as important to clear and accurate writing and speaking.
First, a word on the word aspect. Related in its origin to the word spy, the aspect of something is its appearance, its look, the way we see something portrayed in a given context. Imagine my presenting to you a sparkling and multifaceted diamond. As you first see it, with the light striking its surface in a particular way, would be one aspect, and if you stepped to the side and regarded the stunning object from another angle, with the light now striking it differently—perhaps a portion of one side in shadow and the other in direct light, this new appearance would be a different aspect. This seeing the same thing from different perspectives is what is meant by aspect.
Language, of course, works by depicting objects and events in words, and just as we can see physically with our eyes from different angles, so can we do the same thing with our mind’s eye. If, for example, I wanted to tell you about something that happened on my way to work this morning, I have a choice to make in the way I construct the tale for you. Do I say, It was the strangest thing: I walked down the sidewalk when I felt someone too close behind me, or It was the strangest thing: I was walking down the sidewalk when…, or It was the strangest thing: I did walk down the sidewalk when…. These three constructions of the verb walk represent the three aspects of a verb in English: simple, progressive, and emphatic.
We cast a verb in the simple aspect when we want the light of the reader’s attention directly on the action alone, when we want an isolated, snapshot view of what happened. Read that first example again (the introductory sentence sets the context), and you can hear how clunky the simple aspect would be here: It was the strangest thing: I walked down the sidewalk when…. Likewise would be the emphatic aspect: I did walk down the sidewalk when…. No one is doubting me, so why would I feel the need to emphatically state that I did in fact walk down the sidewalk?
But the second example, the progressive aspect, is the one we want: It was the strangest thing: I was walking down the sidewalk when I felt someone too close behind me. The context is such that you know I am about to tell you a story; I’ve set up that expectation with the introductory sentence. And because stories naturally stretch over time and develop as events unfold, the progressive aspect of the verb walk matches that story-telling characteristic, setting the stage for the next action: I felt someone too close behind me. And notice, too, how this main event, I felt, is presented in the simple aspect, the better to isolate, and so heighten, the dramatic moment of that one single action.
The aspect of a verb is not its tense, but when we can control those two features of a verb accurately, our language will come a step closer to representing the actuality of the events we are depicting in words. Much more is going on in the world than appears at first sight, and the skillful writer will show how each event is related to the next in a particular scene.