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Using verb tenses correctly

This is a quote from The Great Gatsby:

She smiled slowly and, walking through her husband as if he were a ghost, shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye!

Why do these four verbs have different tenses: smiled, walking, shook, looking?

  • +1 for use of '-ing form'. This form implies aspect, not tense. Aug 12, 2012 at 19:26
  • @StoneyB I'm a newbie,could you help me edit the question? Aug 13, 2012 at 1:06
  • What did you mean by “tense” back when you first asked the question? Also, you forgot about were.
    – tchrist
    Aug 13, 2012 at 1:34
  • @tchrist Actually I was not sure how to explain it,just wanted to know why they are different. Aug 13, 2012 at 1:36
  • Happy to. Your original title indicated that what you were confused about was the forms using '-ing', so I've reverted to your original title (which is what I was praising you for: '+1' means I upvoted your question precisely because you talked about 'form' rather than 'tense'). I did change 'haze' to 'hazy' because I think you meant you are confused, not that there is a general confusionAnd I changed your question to focus on what I take to be your concern: why the '-ing' form is used and what it means. - I'm not sure when you'll see my edits - this is the first time I've edited a question. Aug 13, 2012 at 1:37

3 Answers 3


The question is incorrect because it makes the wrong Presuppositions.

Why do the four verbs here (smiled, walking, shook, looking) have different tenses?

They don't have different tenses, you see. And there are five verbs in that sentence.

Smiled and shook are indeed both Past Tense, but walking and looking aren't any tense at all. Walking and looking are Participles (in both cases the Present Active Partiple, or
-ing Form, of the verb), which, like Infinitives, are not inflected for tense, or anything else.

Each of these participles heads a Participial Clause, which is usually derived ultimately from a field-stripped relative or, as in this case, adverbial clause.

  • (after/while she) walked through her husband as if he were a ghost
  • (as/while/at the same time she) looked him flush in the eye

They are participle clauses instead of tensed clauses because they lend a sense of immediacy and simultaneity to a description of a physical action, making the reader reconstruct the event more as a movie than a set of flat pictures. Note the alternation of the tensed and the untensed actions, like camera shots. For future analysis, this summary may be of some assistance.

As to the missed verb, it's were in the idiomatic tensed adverb clause as if he were a ghost.

  • 1
    Your answer contradicts itself: "the Present Active Participle ... not inflected for tense" There are two participle forms in English.
    – jscs
    Aug 12, 2012 at 18:34
  • 2
    That's a name of the inflection, not its description. Would you have preferred the official formal name, which is {-ING}? I'm attempting to avoid overformalism here, but to do that one must depend on cooperation rather than peeving. There are indeed two participial forms; the other is {-EN₁}, often called "Past Participle", or "Perfect Passive Participle". I've often regretted the profusion of polysyllabic P's in grammatical terms. Aug 12, 2012 at 18:40
  • Ok,I have modified the question as you suggest. Aug 13, 2012 at 1:16

First, I'll show you how three of the verbs are used. If we changed all of them into the same tense, past simple, this is what would happen:

She smiled slowly, shook hands with Tom, and looked him flush in the eye.

Do you notice the change? The actions would become a sequence if we changed them all in the same tense.


She smiled, shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye.

The act of "looking" happened more or less at the same time as "shaking hands."

Now, to explain the verb "walking," this is what we call an +ing clause. It derives from the original, complete prepositional clause, "after she walked through her husband" and can also be rephrased as "having walked through her husband" to state the actual order of the actions.

But because "walk" is a short action followed by another short action "shake hands," we can simply use the v+ing instead of having p.p. Like this:

Walking through her husband as if he were a ghost, she shook hands with Tom.


The words "smiled" and "shook" are simple past tenses and indicate an action that is completed. The other two -ing verbs are used to show a continuing action. See What verb tense describes continuing action?

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