1. Terrie000
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    Terrie000 Member

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    When writing in past tense

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Terrie000, Jul 24, 2016.

    ...But in situation you are defining what something is, do you still use past tense?

    Example: Griffin (is or was) a hybrid animal that possessed the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head, wings, and talon of an eagle.

    Or even something like what water is, I think you have to use present tense in these cases, right?
     
  2. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Nope, still past.

    "Griffin walked into the room. He was a hybrid animal . . ."
     
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  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's a fair bit of "it depends", but, yes, present tense is an option. I'm stumbling on your example, so I'm making my own. Past tense in blue, present tense in red.

    I started by training the dogs to fetch the cheese. That was easy enough; dogs are eager to please. In just a few days, they were all performing perfectly. Then came the cats. I not only had to train cats, I had to train them to fetch fish. Undamaged. Cats just aren't made that way. It took nineteen months, and sixteen metric tons of fish, before we just gave up and went to dressing the dogs in cat suits.
     
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  4. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I sometimes have this problem - it's one of those stupid things that my stubbornness won't let me skip over, so I end up spending 40 minutes trying to decide and find out if I should be using 'is' or 'was'.

    The argument, of course, is that if you use past tense you're suggesting this person is no longer of that state.

    "Jenny was a very pretty girl."

    Was? Why, isn't she pretty any more?

    That kind of thing.
     
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2016
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that if you're not sure, it's quite likely that there is no clear answer, so you can just pick one.

    An example: If I were writing a real-world story and had to choose between "rabbits are rodents" or "rabbits were rodents", I'd choose "are", because rabbits are known to the character and the reader, and they exist in the past and the present of the character and reader.

    But what if the character, in his childhood, spent time in Mars and became familiar with a small furry animal called a whifflejumper? Would it be,

    I used to trap whifflejumpers for dinner. They were fat furry animals that tasted like onions.
    I used to trap whifflejumpers for dinner. They're fat furry animals that taste like onions.


    I think that either is OK. But there's a different "vibe" about the two.

    The first feels perhaps more nostalgic, more embedded in the past memory. It suggests that the narrator no longer encounters whifflejumpers, that perhaps the savory oniony flavor of a good roasted whifflejumper is a distant memory. I see the whifflejumpers cooking over a Martian campfire, with Barsoomian flying vehicles silhouetted in front of the sunset in the distance....

    The second, on the other hand, suggests that perhaps the narrator could grab his transit pass and get on MarsTrans to go to the supermarket right now and get a big sack of frozen whifflejumper legs to fry up tonight.

    Y'know, I was going to have several examples, but I tired out my typing fingers and made myself hungry,with just this one.
     
  6. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good post, makes sense. I like the logic that if you're referring to something common, something that will be known to the reader, present tense should be considered.

    But now, I just want a whifflejumper. Not to eat, as a pet.
     
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  7. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I didn't think of this, but it made me realize that for me the distinction is whether you're talking about something in general or specific.

    For example I'd say "I started by training the dogs to fetch the cheese. That was easy enough; dogs are eager to please" but "I started by training the dog to fetch the cheese. That was easy enough; the dog was eager to please". So in the OP's example of a singular, I'd use past - unless what they meant was "griffins as a whole are hybrid animals" and not "Griffin (proper noun) is a hybrid animal".

    I don't really know why, though. Grammar mystifies me.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    That makes sense, though it's still not foolproof. For example (again, blue is past, red is present):

    Last week I saw Jim Parsons speak. He's the actor that plays Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory.

    This sort of thing puts the past and the present more tightly together, so it may be less often relevant for fiction, which tends to look further in the past. But that's just a tendency, not an absolute rule.

    Or sometimes what's true in the present goes pretty far in the past:

    I remember seeing Elizabeth open a flower show when I was a child. I mean, the Elizabeth who is Queen of England.

    Of course, the above has some ambiguity--was Elizabeth the Queen when she opened that flower show? The sentence doesn't tell us.
     
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  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    From th narrator's perspective, is Griffin still such an animal? If so, the present tense remains appropriate, evnwhenthe overall narrative tense is p;ast tense.

    Narrative tense nearly always remains fixed throughout a story, but the tense of every verb can bary considerably. See the links in my footer,
     
  10. Terrie000
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    Terrie000 Member

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    So cat is always cat. Dog is always dog. My cat is yellow and white because that won't ever change. Griffin is a mythical creature, because it still is even though my story was 1000 years ago or something.

    I just wanted to make sure that I can have present tense in a past tense novel. So the answer I hear is yes, you can do present tense, and it depends... not like absolutely no present tense at all.

    Also, in past tense, the word "can" becomes "could", and will becomes "would", right? And the verb after it still past tense or present tense? Ex: I could built a helicopter... or I could have built a helicopter or I could build a helicopter? Do Could and Would always go with have/has? Haha, I have way too many questions on that sentence.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    "I could built a helicopter" is always incorrect.

    "I could have built a helicopter" is correct grammar. Whether it's correctly used depends on context. It's past tense, referring to further in the past.

    I shook my head angrily. Wasted time, so much wasted time. I had wasted six weeks. I could have done anything. I could have trained a dog. I could have built a helicopter.

    "I could build a helicopter" is...is....dang, this is where my lack of knowledge of grammar terms fails me. It could be in a past tense sentence:

    I stared at the parts, deciding what to do. I could build a helicopter. I could make a sandwich. I shrugged and picked up a wrench.

    Or it could be in a present tense sentence:

    I stare at the parts, deciding what to do. I could build a helicopter. I could make a sandwich. I shrug and pick up a wrench.
     
  12. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you want to place your narration in time. It's possible to write in an immediate way, even in past tense, and if you do this I think it makes sense to think of your narration as being quite close, temporally, to the action. But it's also possible, especially if using omniscient, to have the narration further away in time.

    Like, assuming that Griffin is an actual name of an individual animal, not a descriptive term for a lot of them, decide if Griffin is alive or dead at the time of the narration (not the time of the action).

    If still alive:

    Griffin has magnificent claws, strong and agile, and he used them to good advantage that day.​

    If the narration is distant enough that Griffin is dead:

    Griffin had magnificent claws...​

    Or if you're actually referring to griffins, as a class of mythical beast, is your narrator living in the past/magical world where griffins still exist?

    Griffins have magnificent claws, strong and agile, and Grimsby used his to good advantage that day.​

    But if your narrator is living in the present, looking back at a historical world that no longer exists?

    Griffins had magnificent claws...​

    Or, similarly, geographic features that still exist should probably be present tense, while more temporary features that are gone at the time the narrator is writing from should be past:

    The Mississippi river runs from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, picking up detritus of all sorts on the way. It spills its nutrients into the Atlantic in a great plume of life and death, decay and rebirth. John Farmer's intake canal was an attempt to channel some of these nutrients and use them for human good before they were wasted on nature.
    So as you're developing your narrative voice, figure out not only who it is, but also when it is, and work from there.
     
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  13. BWriter
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    BWriter Member

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    Tenses drive me crazy. If I'm writing in past I am alright and it seems more natural to me. Lately I have been experimenting with the present, just to try it, and I keep slipping back into past. Any one else find this?
     
  14. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I understand what @Cogito is saying, and it all makes sense in a logical context, but I don't agree. In that your story is set so long ago, 'Griffin is a mythical creature,' sounds utterly wrong to me. Add to this the fact that this Griffin is, by your own admittance mythical, it seems even more appropriate to use past tense when describing it.

    I would go with Chicken Freak's earlier take on things - if the thing you're describing is current, unchanging, common, and familiar to everyone, then go with present tense.
     
  15. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Or, if Big Bang Theory was off the air at the time the narrator exists:

    He's the actor who played Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory. (He's still the actor, but he no longer plays Sheldon.)​

    Or if this was a little further into the future and Parsons had died in the interim:

    He was the actor who played...​

    But if your narrative voice is set in the past, you'd make the determination based on when your narrative voice is set. Like, a historical first person novel:

    Last week I saw William Shakespeare speak. He's the playwright who's currently working on Romeo and Juliet - I think I'm going to love it when it comes out!
    It all comes down to your narrative voice and when it's set.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You can certainly say, "A dragon is a mythical creature. So why am I standing, petrified with terror, before one?".

    Stating that a creature is (considered) mythical is not inconsistent with it being present and real. If this is not so, you don't really have the temperament for speculative fiction. Fortunately, the English language is sufficiently flexible to support speculation. The choices of tense are almost too varied, such that a small change in that choice shades the overall meaning in ways that can be subtle or stunning. Consider how different the following three greetings shade the meaning:

    Hello, my pupil, you came a long way.
    Hello, my pupil, you have come a long way.
    Hello, my pupil, you had come a long way.

    The first tends to imply a long physical journey. The second seems to speak more of a spiritual or developmental journey. The third carries more of a tone of disappointment at lost potential.

    Narrative tense is simple. There are two, or arguably three. Past relates the events preceding the telling, by as much as eons or as little as femtoseconds. Present narration is told in lockstep with the reader's flow of time. Future, rarely used successfully, tells the reader what WILL occur.

    But within each of these, every sentence, every clause, may take nearly any tense that the context can justify. And to make matters even messier, there is declarative voice, imperative voice, interrogative voice, and subjunctive voice, conveying assertion, command, questions, and hypotheticals.

    All must be mastered to write powerfully.
     
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  17. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    I think you could go either way and that it's largely a matter of style, although lots of good points have been made, particularly regarding how past tense may imply that the fact no longer continues to be true in the present. It's more ambiguous in written English than spoken as we don't assign emphasis (well, not generally) - in spoken English, I'd assume the fact is no longer true if the emphasis were placed on the past-tense verb; if the emphasis lay elsewhere, I wouldn't be confident of the fact's currency but would assume it wasn't important. And in that way, the past tense can create weasel words: 'Hey, I never said rabbits were still rodents!' or vice versa (off-topic sidenote to @ChickenFreak : rabbits aren't rodents!).

    Using present tense sentences in otherwise past tense narrative clears up that ambiguity, but it also draws my attention to the narrator's status as a character, by making me question at what point in time they're talking from (and if it hasn't been stated, who they actually are). That may be good if your narrator actually is a character speaking from some point in the future, but I'd be inclined to stick to past tense if I were writing a generic narrative or if my story's plot never touched on a 'present' that someone would be using present tense to reflect (or both). But that might just be my style.
     
  18. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    You know what else isn't a rodent? Ferrets.

    Totally makes sense once you think about it - of course they aren't. But I called a ferret a rodent in a book once, nobody caught it in editing, and damn, do ferret people not like it when you call ferrets rodents!

    Sorry. Slight sidetrack. Trauma, you know?
     
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  19. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I don't like it when past tense books have these odd sentences in present. It jerks me out of the story. I mean, maybe sometimes it doesn't (in which case I wouldn't notice it) but I've certainly noticed it enough times. For me, that's reason alone to keep it in past.
     
  20. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    To break into present tense in such cases, to me would feel like the writer had stopped telling the story and was now looking me in the eye to make a side comment. Correct or not, I'd feel like I was being 'dear reader-ed' and that's not something I feel comfortable about—as reader or writer.
     
  21. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    So if you were writing about something that's currently still true, you'd write it in past tense?

    Like: Crows were omnivores who loved shiny things, and Casper was always happiest when Belinda was either feeding him or giving him trinkets.

    Instead of: Crows are omnivores who love shiny things, and Casper was always happiest when Belinda was either feeding him or giving him trinkets.

    ETA: I know nothing about crows. I just saw one out the window and went with it. Possibly crows are rodents - who can say for sure?
     
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  22. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Belinda, knowing crows to be omnivores, was always either feeding Casper or giving him trinkets.

    This takes it into the realm of what the character knows rather than sounding like a excerpt from a biology textbook. Even that wouldn't like make it into the final draft, though.

    And just FYI, crows aren't rodents; they're tyrannosaurs with beady eyes. ;)
     
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  23. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I know you're asking Sack, not me, but yes--I'd write it in past. It sounds/reads fine to me.
     
  24. BayView
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    Interesting. I feel like it would jump out at me as a reader.
     
  25. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    I think it would sound fine in certain pieces, not so much others. I'm with Sack on this overall; if I wasn't writing it to make a particular point along the lines already discussed, I'd rewrite to avoid the issue. I'm also with Sack on crows not being rodents, although FYI because pigeons are rats with wings, they technically are rodents ;)
     

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