1. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Tense, past or present (specific question)

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Jud, May 25, 2012.

    No doubt this subject has been covered many times over, but my query is quite specific so I hope I'm justified in starting another thread.

    Fist off, please read this passage.

    This is clearly written in past tense, but do the latter stages of the passage not suggest that I no longer think these things, precisely because I'm referring to them in the past tense.

    "I suppose by definition that's what I was..." "I didn't like its connotations..." "It was preferable..."

    I'm afraid to start switching tense as it may get a little confusing - for me writing it, let alone for those reading it, but these are the kind of things that stump me from time to time and stem the flow.
     
  2. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    I find this difficult too. Both are correct, I think, but what I'd say is that it really depends on the narrative voice. Using the present tense 'I don't like' etc makes it seem like a closer bond between the reader and narrator, whereas the past somehow seems to make it not such a close bond. Think about it, in a 3rd person, past narrative you wouldn't suddenly break into present tense like 'Jack doesn't like...'. The present tense makes it seem like the narrative character has sat down literally and recorded the events, whereas the past tense is like you, the author, has written it from the point of view of the character.

    Slightly confusing, I know, and it's only my opinion. Both can work, but they do have different effects. I'd say the past tense is more normal for mainstream fiction though.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No, any more than the previous 20 dice rolls allow you to predict the next roll of the die.

    Unless you say something else that indicates that you attitude now is different, the use of past tense does not by itself indicate anything about the present.
     
  4. Jud
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    Thanks to both of you for your replies. I suppose to a certain extent we should trust our instincts. When I wrote that passage I didn't hesitate writing it as you see it there. It was only on re-reading that I started to wonder.

    Funnily enough, a few paragraphs on from this the same problem cropped up again, but on this occasion I felt I had to switch to present tense.

    To say "People didn't stir coffee properly..." would have seemed totally unnatural, and yet I can't quite tell you why.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Past narrative tense (the way the STORY is told) does not mean every verb has past grammatical tense (the tense of an individual VERB)
     
  6. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Sorry, I can't get my head around what you've said there. Are you saying I was correct to use present tense for the 'People don't stir coffee properly...' line, or that I was incorrect?
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I'm saying it's perfectly fine.
     
  8. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Thanks. One of my biggest flaws is that I over-analyse/complicate things when writing :rolleyes:
     
  9. P R Crawford
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    P R Crawford Member

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    Hi Jud,

    Interesting question.

    I would ask the following question to clarify the issue: Is the narrator currently a bachelor, living alone, while he is narrating this passage? If so, then put it in the present tense. So...

    If he's not a bachelor while he's narrating, then it stays in the past tense.

    Apologies in advance for the nit-picking, but I'd rethink the following phrase: "one of the great pleasures afforded by the bachelor, should they be so inclined". Perhaps you mean "one of the great pleasures afforded the bachelor, should he be so inclined"...?
     
  10. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Hi again, PR.

    That's another great point. Your re-edit sounds very natural, and thinking about it I suppose it does all depend on his 'current' status. I have no idea where this is going, I just need to write, but I'm not entirely sure of his current status and can only assume this will resolve itself as the story unravels.

    As for line you single out, I found an online dictionary yesterday which gave the definition of bachelor as: 'An unmarried man or woman'. Looking now, though, I can only find it defined as 'An unmarried man'.

    I'll change it.

    Mmm, just noticed you omitted the word 'by'. Can you explain why, please? Should maybe it be 'afforded to'?
     
  11. P R Crawford
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    P R Crawford Member

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    It's kind of a complex usage you've got going there with "afforded", especially since it's in the passive tense. Here you're using "afford" in its sense of "to offer or provide [something]". We can use "afford" in this sense when we say something like:

    "Writingforums.org affords the writer a wonderful opportunity to learn in a community of other writers."

    So working your sentence around, while preserving the passive tense, it becomes:

    "The bachelor is afforded the great pleasure of being naked."

    I can see why you want to fit "by" in - it's that tricky passive construction - we naturally want to know what he is afforded the great pleasure by. Well....

    "The bachelor is afforded the great pleasure of being naked by the fact of being a bachelor."

    Oy, we're veering awfully close to tautology territory... :eek:

    So a better fix might actually be to keep your "by" and change "the bachelor" to "bachelorhood":

    "It was another gloriously hot day and I was naked from head to toe – one of the great pleasures afforded by bachelorhood."

    But ack! we've got the modifying phrase "should he be so inclined" - a notion which I can see you'd wish to include for a number of reasons, mainly centering around the narrator's apparent preoccupation with the process of how things are construed as fitting, proper acceptable ("Society likes... needs labels, it would seem") and his apparent tendency to defend himself ("I just happen to live alone, and yes, it's by choice").

    "Should he be so inclined" added to these other preoccupations comes out as saying "hey, different strokes for different folks - and that's just fine by me, and it really ought to be fine by you, because after all, it's none of your business anyways what I do or don't do when I'm alone by myself - and the very fact I have to sit here defending myself about all this just goes to show what a messy business this whole Society vs. Privacy thing is after all!"

    So, how to include all that, while keeping your sentence within a reasonable range of readability... :confused:

    I guess we could have:

    "It was another gloriously hot day and I was naked from head to toe – one of the great pleasures afforded by bachelorhood, should the bachelor be so inclined."

    We're getting pretty stilted here, though... Maybe simplifying it to something like:

    "It was another gloriously hot day and I was naked from head to toe - one of those great pleasures a bachelor like myself can easily enjoy, should he be so inclined."

    On the other hand, there's nothing specifically wrong with stilted, if that reflects who your narrator is. It's just that many readers won't give you the benefit of the doubt, preferring "easier reading"... But then, hey, that's probably not your market!

    Anyways, sorry for the long post - got carried away. But it's an interesting little nugget to gnaw on - at least for certain types of overexcitable minds like mine.... ;)

    Peter
     
  12. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    If you're going to be that helpful, Peter, you get carried away all you want :)

    I love your possible alternatives to the sentence and agree it probably needs looking at. I could of course do away with the word 'bachelor' altogether and say the same thing differently. In fact, given that he disapproves of the word so much, why does he refer to himself in that way?

    Great stuff, Peter - keep it coming :)

    Okay, try this one on for size. Staying with the tense theme, what is it called when a past tense narrative relates something that happened in an even further distant past, and what tense do you use?

    Let's say the narrator is adult, but he wants to relate something that happened in his childhood, what is that tense called? Past past tense? Distant past tense?

    Example of a straightforward, past tense, childhood narrative: "We walked deep into the wood and looked for somewhere to set up camp."

    But in a past tense narrative where an adult is recalling such a time, it might be: "We used to walk deep into the woods, looking for somewhere to set up camp."

    What is the name for the tense in the latter of those sentences?
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    This view always puzzles me. If you sat anybody I know (including me) down to record events that had happened to me, I would recount them in the past tense. You naturally used the past tense in your posting; does that mean that I should assume you didn't write it but some other author wrote it from your POV? I just don't find past tense distancing at all.
     
  14. Jud
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    I agree, digitig. If I was to recount a story, face to face to another person, I would do so in past tense. What else? I admit that sometimes, such as if you was telling someone about something that had happened to you earlier in the evening, you may tell it in present tense - i.e "So I'm in this bar, right, and this woman walks up to me...." but if it's 'life' story, you'd tell it in past tense, surely?

    Anyway, I once heard an analogy that went, 'Past tense is like you're being told a story, present tense is like you're watching a film.'
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It doesn't have to. If you use past tense then there is a suggestion that it no longer applies but the suggestion is so weak that I wouldn't expect a reader to hold you to it. If you switch to the present as P R suggested then it's definite that the state is the same. If you use a past tense form such as "that's what I used to be" then it's more definite that it's changed.
    The traditional (British) English term for an unmarried woman is "spinster", although it is dying out except in formal contexts such as the reading of marriage banns. I expect the US neologism "bachelorette" to take over, although given the trend for gender neutrality "bachelor" might shift to include women too.
    "By" jarred with me too. "afforded" in the sense you are using it means "permitted", and the nudity isn't permitted by the bachelor, it's permitted to the bachelor. I'm not sure that's technically true -- my wife doesn't bother much if I wander around naked provided the curtains are closed, and she wouldn't mind it in the garden if we had higher hedges -- but it might well be what the narrator thinks so "afforded to" would be fine.
     
  16. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    Thank you, digitig - taken on board.
     
  17. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    Yes, you'd recount the events in past tense, but you might offer opinions in the present tense (I'm excluding all dialogue from this). I find that by expressing opinions and other small sections in present tense you give the impression that the narrator exists outside the confines of the story, whereas past keeps them within the story, assuming that the story is written in past tense.

    Past tense as an entity certainly doesn't automatically create a sense of distance, I'd agree with that.
     
  18. P R Crawford
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    Hi Jud,

    Just to make sure I understand what you're asking, is this the kind of narrative situation you're talking about:

    You see, it's possible to do it all in the simple past. Technically, you could also switch into the past perfect: "When I was a kid, this whole street had been a ghetto." But holding to the past perfect would make things pretty awkward....

    Upshot is, I wouldn't worry too much about tenses, unless the narrator is meant to be a stickler. In RL we do pretty well with just the basics...
     
  19. BallerGamer
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    BallerGamer Active Member

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    Hello, this is off topic, but I didn't feel it necessary to create a new topic when one already existed that sort of addressed the same question, so I hope you don't mind I ask mine here. Mine is more general and vague. I've actually ran into this problem plenty of times before. To provide context to my passage, it's a school in an era where birching was still accepted (hitting students with a rod across the buttocks for discipline)

    I was told to not cross present and past tense, but here it seems like I have to; it's all in the past tense but the father's body being frail is true in the present too. If I said "his father's body was frail" it almost sounds like right now in the present it no longer is.
     
  20. Jud
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    Hi, Baller.

    Here, again, we're dealing with the narrator's current status (or in this case his dad's). It's a tricky one and I understand where you're coming from, but strictly speaking I'd say it needs to be '... was frail'. The reason I say that is because given the context, it's obvious - even if you refer to his father's condition in past tense - that it's 'currently' the situation.

    The best thing you can do when you get stuck like this is to say the sentence out loud, just as you would if you telling it to another person. You may feel silly doing it, but speak it naturally and without reading from your text, and I think you'll find that when you come to the sentence in question your natural instict will be to say "... was frail."

    ---------------

    That's kind of what I mean, but I do give an example of exactly what I mean in the post you quoted from. I'm talking about how an adult, relating a story from, let's say five years ago, would then relate something that happened from his childhood.
     
  21. BallerGamer
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    BallerGamer Active Member

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    That actually helped when I read it aloud, and yes what you say is true, it does make more sense. Thanks for the help!
     
  22. Jud
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    Believe it or not I have yet another question regarding tense.

    In the second paragraph that relates the character's status twelves months previously, my instinct was to type, 'Twelve months ago.' but then I started wondering about the connotations of that. To say 'ago' would suggest the story I'm telling is current, at the time it's being read.

    I'm not even sure what I'm trying to say now... I let tense trouble me far more than it should.
     
  23. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    You're welcome. Glad I could help :)
     
  24. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, I'd read "twelve months ago" as relative to "now" -- the time at which the narration is happening. I'd probably write "twelve months earlier" rather than "twelve months prior to this", though.
     
  25. Jud
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    "Twelve months earlier"... of course!

    It's been a long and very hot day. Thanks, digitig.
     

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