Saturday, January 24, 2009

You Might Say That

verb tenses--tools for the dramatic expression of time or the articulation of time filtered through action; a method of measuring when an action takes place; the demarcation between past, present, and future actions.

One notable way to distinguish the accomplished, well-published writer from the beginner is to notice how much more graceful and seemingly conversational the prose of the accomplished writer emerges. Much of this effect comes from the way the writer deals with verb tenses.

In conventional dramatic narrative, the writer uses the immediate past tense--the preterit--to convey action taking place now. "John woke up early this morning 'is thus understood by the reader to mean Here is John, waking up at this very moment. If someone in the scene wants to make sure John is indeed awake, that person will ask, "Are you awake?" or the gerund form, "Are you waking up?"

John may provide a further clue by responding that he is "already up," or that he has been "up for some time." This time frame can be facilitated with the already (John was already awake when the alarm sounded.) or by the introduction of the auxiliary verb had (John had been awake for nearly an hour when the alarm sounded). In every case we have a sense of John's waking progress and the further awareness of his preparedness for what is to come. The only thing we've missed is capturing John at the precise moment of his movement from sleep to wakefulness, which is "John was waking up just as the alarm sounded."

Conditional circumstances are expressed with adverbial help. "Ordinarily John would have slept until six thirty, but this morning was special; he was awake just before five thirty." This construction allows us a peek at John's usual habits, a sense of the specialness of today, and when he awoke on this morning of the story."

Since about the mid 1960s, narrative writers began employing the present tense to track dramatic action. "John wakes up just as the alarm sounds." To use this verb tense format to indicate that John had been awake for some time, we bring in the auxiliary verb format, "John has been awake for over an hour..."

The conditional approach is rendered in present tense with a slight shift to the tense of the auxiliary verb. "John is usually able to sleep until the alarm sounds, but today he is up an hour early."

Interior monologue and expressions of subjective volition also have usage shifts that have become conventional. However correct it is for John to wonder in a third person narrative, Now what will I do? he wondered, the conventional approach has become a shift in the pronoun and verb tense, Now what would he do, he wondered. Likewise, while grammatically correct for John to think, I can't go on like this, the conventional narrative use has become, He couldn't go on like this.

The presence of the auxiliary verb had is a clue to the reader that the action under observation is completed past action. "John had wanted to go" becomes an indication that John had at one time in the past wanted to go. He may have a different feeling about it now: "At the time, John had wanted to go, but now he was glad he'd remained home," a straightforward rendition of showing us John's past and present feelings and in the bargain demonstrating the need to watch one's use of the auxiliary verb had, which appears considerably less formal and clunky if used as a contraction as in he'd, she'd, even I'd.

I have gone implies the completed past action.

I went implies having gone there once, probably witnessed by the reader.

I used to go implies having gone there a number of times.

I might have gone implies the possibility of not remembering or leading up to a mitigating circumstance of why I didn't go.

I'll do it later implies future conditional intention.

I shall do it later implies future volition.

A good standard for adopting such conventions of verb tense to fit one's individual narrative style is the standard of reading writers whose work you admire, noting the places where they so adroitly convey the differences between completed action, recently completed action, ongoing or continuous action, conditional probability, and future probability.

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