1. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    Grammar Past tense, but continuous to the present

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by newjerseyrunner, May 10, 2017.

    What is the best practice for when a story is set in the past tense, but there are parts of the story that are consistent both in the past and present?

    Something like this:

    Jon was walking along 8th avenue. He did other things, all of which are in the past. He approached Central Park from the south. Lincoln Square is a wealthy area, nestled between Clinton and the Upper West Side.

    About that "is." Should it be was? Was to me implied that it was at once time, but isn't anymore, but it also gives me a weird feeling when reading it aloud, as though I'm breaking tense.
     
  2. Storysmith

    Storysmith Active Member

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    Past tense. If you say "is", you're telling us nothing about how wealthy the area was when the story took place, just its present condition. "Was" can be used to imply a change of state, but it's not always implied - consider "Lincoln Square was wealthy back then too".
     
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  3. SethLoki

    SethLoki Retired Autodidact Contributor

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    From what I remember it's called 'historical present'. If someone could confirm. I think what you've written is technically correct but, to me, it stands out a little and this can disengage one from the story. What about work the info in with a comma separated clause?

    Lincoln Square, a wealthy area, nestled between...etc
     
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  4. Bronson

    Bronson Member

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    Yeah, I've struggled with this when I'm entering too many relevant memories into a situation.
     
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  5. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

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    You stick with the "was" throughout. The past or present tense both imply continuous, immediate action in fiction. It's a style thing more than an actual expression of time. When implying "ago" you need additional modification like "Lincoln Square used to be a wealthy area." The tense stays consistent throughout, including the inverse, like if you were writing in present tense and had to imply that something happened in the "ago" you would still need the additional "used to be" modification. I'm not positive about that, but I think the same rules apply since the tenses are stylistic and not demarcations of time.
     
  6. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man or BayView

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    I think "is" is correct but I agree with you that it doesn't sound right. When I read books that do that, it jars me.

    I'd probably reword to remove the need for an is or a was:

    Jon was walking along 8th avenue. He did other things, all of which are in the past. He approached Central Park from the south and entered Lincoln Square, a wealthy area nestled between Clinton and the Upper West Side.
     
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  7. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Contributor Contributor

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    I second @Tenderiser 's suggestion. Solves the tense issue, and the active voice sounds better.
     
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  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I can't help asking: What wasn't active voice?
     
  9. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Contributor Contributor

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    @ChickenFreak In the OP it was "Lincoln Square is a wealthy area, nestled between Clinton and the Upper West Side." Maybe that's not technically passive voice? It sounded off to me, with a linking verb after three sentences with action verbs. Unrelated to the tense issue, I mean.
     
  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Yep, it's not passive voice. There's a common misperception that use of is, was, etc., always means passive voice, but it rarely does. (That is, passive voice often uses "is" or "was", but "is" and "was" are used in so many other ways that they rarely actually signify passive voice.)

    Passive voice means that the subject of the sentence is being acted on, rather than acting. Examples:

    Active: The dog is brown./The dog was brown.
    Active: The dog is eating./The dog was eating.
    Passive: The dog is being fed./The dog was being fed.

    This is one of my pet peeves, hence my "can't help asking". :)

    That doesn't mean that there aren't sometimes better ways, depending on your chosen style, to deal with a sentence of the form "Noun is description...". It just means that that form isn't passive voice.

    I cease my opinionating now.
     
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  11. Pharthan

    Pharthan Active Member

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    Stick with past tense to maintain tense with the predominant one, or go with the active-voice suggestion.
    Keep in mind that while the "is" may be true while you're writing it for the present - unless your narrator is also technically an involved character telling the story from his own point of view - it may not be true for the future. Sure, Lincoln Square is wealthy now. Will it be wealthy 100 years from now? 1000? After the inevitable heat death of the universe? Lincoln Square is wealthy now, but it was also wealthy back then. Using "was" isn't wrong. It may not be inclusive, but maintains correctness across the ages. (I've been reading a lot of the Bible lately, and some stuff in the Old Testament caught me with this flaw. The writer will describe an alter being built, or something to that effect, name the place, and say something to the effect of, "... where it still stands to this day." Everything else but dialogue is past-tense, but then the author assumes the reader is going to be in his time period, not 1,000, 2,000, or 10,000 years in the future.)
    The reader understands the stance the narrator has on the story, so it's best not to muddle things.

    A better example of active versus passive, "The book was finally finished by its author," (passive) "The author finally finished the book," (active) The book is the subject of the first sentence is being acted upon, whereas in the second the author is the subject and is acting.
     
    Last edited: May 18, 2017
  12. Mr. Raleigh D

    Mr. Raleigh D Member

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    I've had this problem before when I first started writing. I've gotten better at it. My advice: stick to the rhythm.
     

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