Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Feeling Tense

I started a piece on tense last night, as in past, present, future tense, and quickly discovered that I really just don’t know enough about the issue to write on it. Usually we speak of a bit of writing as being in the past tense, or occasionally in the present tense, but when I try to analyze some writing I often find myself confused. Consider the following tidbit, in which I’ve indicated the verb tenses in parentheses.

“The first bombing run was (past) barely over when the second one began (past). Tom raced (past) his jeep through the streets, hoping he would (future) be able to reach his fighter plane and take off before it was (past) destroyed.”

Although this is a past tense piece, there is at least one use of the future tense. Isn’t there?

Then consider this line: “There was sleet that sent the people of Locknaar scurrying from the streets as the sun failed.” This is past tense, and if we write it in present tense we get: “There is sleet that sends the people of Lochnaar scurrying from the streets as the sun fails.” Note that “scurrying from the streets” is precisely the same in both forms. Normally, in writing in past tense you’d say, “scurried from the streets.” “Scurrying” seems to be happening now, in both sentences. Owwie, my brain hurts.

I’ve checked out grammar books but most of them seem to give only the briefest and simplest examples of tense usage, ones that always seem clear to me but do not cover the whole range of differences. Most of them seem to focus on nonfiction as well. Anyone have a suggestion for a book or article that really gets in there and explains the details? Or perhaps you are yourself a tense guru and can make the scales fall from my eyes.

I await…enlightenment.


Anonymous said...

I hope someone has some answers on this one. I've had problems with this and I still do have problems with it.

Bernita said...

A couple of things "scurrying" is not a verb - it is a verb form, a participle or an infinitive - one of those - I don't remember which, so pure tense does not apply.
"Hoping he would" is mere expectation, a conditional idea expressed during a past action.
Clear as mud, I know.

Drizel said...

welll sorry Charles I cant help with this either....:(

Sidney said...

I'm typing this on my laptop. It's that time of the afternoon I like to pause and peruse other people's thoughts and sometimes shoot back my own, but as I mull over this quandry I find I have no real answers.

Clifford said...

Oh man, good topic. Believe it or not, I read the first example as present tense. The first bombing happened in the past, but the second one is going on now. Yeah, I know the verbs are mainly in past tense. It's like if there was an accident outside my window...and I said, "The SUV plowed into the side of the bus and the driver got out and began yelling at the crowd of onlookers..." At some point, my telling catches up with what's going on now and even though I'm still using past tense (with a few "ing" verbs tellingly thrown in), the events I'm describing are occurring now...if I were talking to you over the phone, describing the scene, I'd probably switch to present tense at some point, but in fiction, that's a no-no, so I'd either write it in such a way that there's a clear delineation between past events and present, or roll with it, keeping the events in the immediate past.


Clifford said...

Present tense is just awkward... in reality, everything occurs in the past or is either ongoing. As soon as you obverve something, that event is in the least the origin of it. I can't say "my head hurts" until it's started hurting, so the beginning of the pain, and the actual pain I'm referring to (not the current pain), is in the past.

I once blogged about how time is infinite, and you can't actually capture "now", because as soon as you do, "now" changes...yeah, pop philosopy 101, but I think, in a way, we're dealing with it when we work with tense in our fiction.

Oh, this topic is rich!!!

Lucas Pederson said...

Try finding a copy of Warriner's English Grammar and Composition. It's a hefty volume, and I'm still reading it here off and on, but it has given me at least a clue so far about tense. Although, I still don't seem to be grasping the concept. Once the first reading is done I'll read the blasted thing again and maybe catch what I missed the first go around. I'll warn you though, it's almost too informative. But, what the hell, you only live once right? Catch ya later, buddy!

Danny Tagalog said...

Hi Charles, the first usage of 'would' is an example of 'future in the past' - and though 'hope' has what could be said as separate 'word grammar' rules, and is often followed by a present tense with a future meaning ('I hope she likes *will like* the flowers'), your sentence utilises future in the past. I think the dominant first clause imposes a past tense time frame over the remaining sentences, allowing the following dependent clauses/sentences to operate 'within' that dominant time frame.

My brain hurts too, and a day's work beckons - but reading "Functional Grammar" by M A K Halliday will introduce you to Systemic Functional Grammar, which is where a full esplanation can be found I believe. Actually, Bloor and Bloor's "The Functional Analysis of English" is more user friendly...

Shauna Roberts said...

I know! I know! (she says, waving her hand wildly)

"Would" is the past tense of "will." So by using "would" you can refer to the relative future while staying consistently in the past tense.

"Scurrying from the streets" is a participle phrase, which is considered a modifier, not a verb, even though it is derived from a verb.

H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage covers everything grammar, but is put together so idiosyncratically that one can't find anything in it.

I rely on Chaire Kehrwald Cook's The MLA's Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (which has been published under various titles; search for it by the author's name). It doesn't cover everything, but it's easy to find things in it, and it's short enough and written well enough that one can read it for pleasure.

Steve Malley said...

We use odd tenses in fiction.

Past tense is supposed to preserve the idea that 'these things happened, at least a little while ago'. Even in a first person narrative, even at the moment of that viewpoint character's death, past tense is the rule.

We use an 'active' past. "Tom jumped, Jane ran" preserves our sense of 'narrative present'.

'Narrative past' is expressed with that awful 'passive past tense'. You know the one: "Tom had jumped. Jane had run. Mary had had her eye on the ball." Ick.

And of course, our 'past' characters will think about the future. They have expectaions of conditional ideas, as Bernita said.

Sometimes, writers will drop into present tense to discuss ongoing conditions. "In winter the rains come, and people scurry." "They fuck you at the drive-thru." and so on. It's a questionable call, but as James Lee Burke is fond of using the technique, I'll allow it.

(Yeah, JLB is breathing a sigh of relief right now, I know...)

And yeah, certain elements *are* using present tense throughout. This bid to up the tension and involvement started in short stories, but now it's creeping into the odd novel too. Those guy would in fact write, "The rain comes. The people scurry. I open the car door."

The French have a special verb tense they pretty much only use for newspapers.

I thought that was crazy, until I wandered into the looking-glass world of grammar in modern fiction...

miller580 said...

"Tom raced (past) his jeep through the streets, hoping he would (future) be able to reach his fighter plane and take off before it was (past) destroyed."

I think (and this is my opinion) that "would be able" is a passive voice and this is why there is confusion.

The sentence reads fine without it and maintains "tense."

--Tom raced (past) his jeep through the streets, hoping to reach his fighter plane and take off before it was (past) destroyed.

With this change the "hoping to reach his fighter plane and take off before it was (past) destroyed." then becomes a modifier? I think.

Anyway...I thought I would muddy up the water with my two cents.

Oh yeah...there is a pretty good chance I have no idea what I am talking about.

Susan Miller said...

Ummm...well...I'm saying a six pack out on the deck with Lana while secretly viewing the nature around you is your best bet.

Your brain must be hurting by now. We are beings that complicate much more than we should and, in answer to your question, I don't know.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ah, thanks everyone. This was a very helpful discussion. I'm glad to find both confused folks and folks who know the answers and can explain it. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Partially.

Erik Donald France said...

This is very tricky stuff to explain in class. A little better one on one. Nice post, past present and future.

the walking man said...

I know the nuns beat this into me but I think it all has become a repressed childhood memory.

Peace in your search for the back porch, your woman and a six pack