Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Tense Situation


Classical Antiquities,
-from an old advertisement for Adriadne Galleries, New York.

While I was not Miss Bustlewhistle's star pupil at her Academy for Young Ladies -- certain hoydenish proclivities (spitballs et al, not to mention a few other unsavoury incidents) precluded that -- she was always reasonably satisfied with my grasp of grammar and its sometimes obscure elegancies of form.

Including consistency with tense.

However, I may have violated rules governing appropriate use of tense in the excerpt posted Friday.

You may have observed that, while the rest of her narration is in proper and unexceptional past tense, Lillie comments on the kinds of bodies one encounters in present: "Bodies are very bad when..."

Of course, such insertions and observations are sometimes inevitable and, in fact, natural in first person narration. Particularly if one wishes to avoid where possible any unnecessary use of "I thought" in the interests of immediacy, and also to emphasize a conclusion or an opinion by the narrator that no future event is likely to alter.

After scouring Miss Bustlewhistle's bible, Ye Olde Grammar Booke, I'm still unsure if I've committed a solecism, for the only defense I find is an ambiguous rule : The present tense may be used for the past in vivid narration. -- which I don't think applies to this case, and is meant to allow and excuse the telling of an entire story in present tense.

So, tell me, in your opinion, have I earned detention and extra homework?

Or is a tense change acceptable in some circumstances and I'm fussing over nothing?

32 comments:

StarvingWriteNow said...

Don't tense up, Bernita!

(Okay, it was bad.)

I think this kind of shift happens in first person regularly. No detention for you, so long as it doesn't bleed over into your third person.

Bernita said...

Hee, Starving! Thank you.
~no worse than my title~

SzélsőFa said...

My 2 cents:
I thought the use of present tense was justified for it detailed the protagnoist's general view of similar situations.
I feel had been said sentences in the Past Tense, they would have referred to what the Prot. feeled right there right at that time.

December/Stacia said...

I agree. I don't think there's anything wrong with it.

Bernita said...

Ah, thank you, Szelsofa, that was my justifying logic as well.

Good, December. Seemed natural to change tense in the circumstances.

Ric said...

It reads fine. Not sure it would work the other way. Wasn't one of those WTF moments - which is really all you should worry about.

Sam said...

The present verbs gave a sense that the action was taking place in the immediate - that's all.

Bernita said...

Maybe I'm just making an upside down cake of myself over a trifle, Ric, just because I've seen people nicked over tense. Thank you. The WTF was exactly what I have been worried about.

OK, Sam, I'll relax and save the red pen for other things.

Carla said...

I second all the other comments that say there was no problem with it.

There's a rule of thumb in technical writing that may be applicable here; use past tense when describing a specific occurrence ("The mean effective dose in Group 1 was X mg"), and use present tense when describing a general case ("A dose of X mg is effective in most patients"). I took the present tense sentences as Lillie's reflections on bodies in general. As soon as the narrative was referring to this specific body it switched to past tense. That's exactly how it should be.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

You really don't need to worry about tense in dialogue. That's the way people talk.

I also see, in more certain works--(often British, a style I sometimes emulate) tense shifts in narrative when one is referring to a universal truth. If your narrative had stated: Bodies are bad when... I still think, given the right conversational tone with the reader, present would work. Or it could be considered an actual thought. For some examples of this see GOOD OMENS or THE ANDROID'S DREAM. One is a British novel; the other American.

Bodies were bad... = narrator's experience. Bodies are bad... = universal truth.

Sometimes U.T.s get a little hairy with POV nazis, but I'm not one of those. Some people will not tolerate an omniscient voice at all, even on the part of theirr narrator, but that's a subject for another day.

I AM a tense nazi. As long as YOU know what you mean to say and you communicate effectively to the reader (I've yet to see you fail in this), you should be good.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm no expert on tense but it didn't stop me when I read it so I don't think it's a serious problem. I agree with starvingwritenow that the first person covers up any smidgen of problem. Have you thought of writing the whole thing in present tense?

Bernita said...

Carla, I am vastly relieved. It seemed a natural form, but when, in a revision twitch, I went looking for a defense I couldn't find one.
And there's an OMG horror in suspecting one may have routinely violated basic canon.
Thank you.

Bernita said...

My early training followed the British mode, SS, quite emphatically - with the result that I'm a grammatical half-blood.
Thank you.

No, Charles. To me, total present tense narration smacks too obviously of a stylistic device.I find it artificial rather than immediate.

Lisa said...

I thought it worked very well. By the way, I had to laugh when I saw the photo and post title! Classic :)

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I didn't even notice there was a tense shift.

And I do notice them when they jar.

Bernita said...

On reflection, Lisa, the photo is an even more appropriate choice than I first imagined!

Obviously then, Gabriele, my sudden fit of angst was the result of phantom pain!

raine said...

I didn't freeze in my reading of it, and I understood what you were doing, so it must've worked for me as a reader. But we can break out the cat-o'-nine-tails if you'd like, Bernita. :)

Bernita said...

One sin at a time, Raine!

Vesper said...

For what it's worth, I agree with all of the above, Bernita. You needn't worry, your text's flow is very good.

Church Lady said...

I felt it was fine also, Bernita.

Love the picture. Miss the groaners. ;-(

Bernita said...

Thank you, Vesper and Chris for the reassurance.
A temprary fit of insanity then.

moonrat said...

no dentention!!!

besides, if writers were perfect all the time, what would editors be for...?

archer said...

It's not only acceptable, it makes a first-rate effect. It's acceptable because it doesn't distract the reader--we know who is talking and what's going on from sentence to sentence--and it makes its effect because present tense is more immediate. It's as though the narrator suddenly looked you in the eye, which is just what might happen when someone starts talking about a dead body. Nice work.

Bernita said...

Impossible to imagine a writer not needing an editorial eye, Moonrat!

Thank you, Archer.
Anyone else ever suffer OMG-maybe-I've-been-doing-it-wrong-all-along fits?

Ello said...

Detention! I've always wanted to say that. But no, everybody else beat me to the punch so I can only say that it was the right tense at the right time.

I am like Chris - I miss the groaners!

spyscribbler said...

I don't know. I've always wondered. I do tend to write "Bodies were very bad when..." It does seem to work, if you do it consistently.

However, your way works, too, for me. I've just always been afraid it's wrong, like you.

Jon M said...

Does it spoil the story? I wrestle with the word 'had' frequently, sometimes taking pity on it, other times squishing it. You've inspired me with yesterday's blog!

Bernita said...

Would that be a bench penalty, Ello?

The things we dither over, Natasha!

Jon, "had" is another type of dock. Glad it was useful.

The Anti-Wife said...

I thought it was wonderful as written. No need to fret!

writtenwyrdd said...

If they are the character's thoughts, they can be in first person, or so I understand. It's common practice, anyhow.

Regardless of rules, it didn't stand up and shout at me when I read it.

Bernita said...

Case clearly closed, Written!

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