Do you tell your story using past tenses? If so, don’t think you can’t also use the present tense. Sometimes it’s the right tool for the job.
Be Your Own Copy Editor #11
When copy-editing novels narrated using past tenses, I frequently find that an author hasn’t got to grips with how to use the present tense within their past-tense pages. Either it’s used tentatively or it’s not employed at all when it could be, perhaps because the author thinks using the present tense would be a mistake. I’m not talking here about using the present tense – specifically, the present simple – in dialogue, where of course it’s natural to see it, or in direct-thought inner monologue (if you don’t know what that is, read this blog), but in narration. The passage below makes clear what I mean. Imagine it’s a chapter opening.
The AK-47 has a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.
DC Josh Kavanagh was thinking about that fact as he drove to the lock-up in South London where an AK had been found carefully hidden behind packing cases. If, as seemed likely, jihadis coming back from Syria had smuggled this and other weapons back into the UK, the consequences could be horrific. He tried to push visions of a Mumbai-style massacre on the concourse of Victoria Station out of his mind.
Notice how the present simple is used (‘has’) in the first sentence, and then there’s a switch to past tenses (‘was thinking’, ‘drove’, ‘had been found’). There’s nothing wrong with using the present tense side by side with the past like this. A feature of English is that we use the present simple to talk about general truths, such as the rate of fire of an AK-47, and we can do it in a past-tense novel if we wish. Here are a few more examples of the kind of general truths we use the present simple for:
The moon orbits the earth.
One in every four climbers who attempt to reach the summit of K2 dies trying.
Brighton has a lot of seagulls.
Let’s return to that chapter opening and now write the first line in the past simple, since that’s what a lot of authors do, perhaps because they think they’d be making an error if they strayed from using past tenses in narration.
The AK-47 had a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.
DC Josh Kavanagh was thinking about that fact as he drove to the lock-up in South London where an AK had been found carefully hidden behind packing cases.
That opening line reads okay to me. It’s unlikely readers are going to think that, because the past simple is used (‘had’), AK-47s once had a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute, but something has changed and they don’t any more. However, this opening sentence is not as powerful as the original. The original line, written in the present simple, makes a bigger and bolder statement. Here it is again:
The AK-47 has a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute.
That statement is reaching out to you, the reader. It’s more involving and in-your-face. This line is saying AK-47s have a rate of fire of six hundred rounds a minute in the world you live in as you read the book, and they always have done and always will.
So, not only is there nothing wrong with using the present simple in this way, but also there can be a lot right with it. However, there’s a ‘but’ coming, which is this: when you use the present simple to talk about general truths, the statements made can come across as strong interventions by the narrator, and that might not be an effect you want. If, as a novelist, you’re trying to maintain narrative intimacy with a viewpoint character (the character from whose viewpoint a scene is written), you need to handle lines like the one above with care.
I had the issue of maintaining narrative intimacy with my viewpoint character in mind when I composed the example chapter opening. You’ll notice that though it’s the narrator who tells the reader the rate of fire of an AK-47, the information is quickly owned by the protagonist, DC Josh Kavanagh, who we learn is thinking about the damage that could be done with the weapon. If you use the present simple to give a general truth in narration, you might want to find a way to quickly re-establish narrative intimacy with your viewpoint character too.
1. See if you’ve used the present simple in the way outlined above in your novel, since you may well have done without realising. If you have, don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using it per se, and check that you’ve consistently used the present tense. (I often see novels in which an author sometimes uses the present simple to give a general truth, but at other times switches to the past simple to do the same thing, without apparently noticing they are being inconsistent.)
2. If you discover that you’ve made statements giving general truths using the past simple, try converting the sentences to the present simple. Are the statements made more powerful and resonant as a result?
3. But be careful with using the present simple in this way. You might not like having the narrator speak so directly to the reader.
Assuming you’ve been following the advice I’ve been giving in this blog series, when you fact-checked your manuscript, or went on dangler patrol, or eliminated those commas in compound predicates, it was a little like planing a piece of wood, and misspelled brand names, danglers and misplaced commas fell to the floor from your manuscript, so to speak. The advice in this instalment, however, could lead to some sweeping up of manuscript shavings on your part only if you’re an author who tends to write a certain kind of sentence – namely, the type using participial phrases containing present participles (I’ll go into what that actually means in a moment). If you are one of those writers, you might just be making a couple of mistakes I often see in manuscripts and which I’m going to discuss here.
Let’s nail down what I mean by participial phrases containing present participles – and no, I have no idea where this carpentry imagery is coming from, since woodwork is not my strong suit, evidenced by the fact that at school I couldn’t even produce a functioning dovetail joint. Nor was I any good at metalwork.
Now that I’ve somehow got on to the subject of making stuff out of wood and metal at school, and seeing as this is a blog about language, I think it’s only right I share my one abiding memory of metalwork lessons – conversations like the one that follows that came after my bewhiskered, Scottish metalwork teacher, whose name I forget, told me to do something, and I replied by saying ‘Alright.’ Scots Whiskers: ‘Stop saying “alright”, laddie. It’s not a proper word.’ Me: ‘Alright.’ Whiskers: ‘I said stopping saying alright!’ Me: ‘And I said alright. I’ll stop saying alright. Alright?’ Etc. Ad detention. Oh, the fun we had provoking the stick-in-the-mud teachers at our stick-in-the-mud school.
To demonstrate what the phrases in question look like, I suggest we catch up with our drug-dealing anti-hero from the last blog, John Dudley, the so-called Snow King and the guy who, last time we met him, miraculously found a fire axe in Dunbad Prison, where he’s currently doing time, then proceeded to bury the axe in his cellmate’s head. Incidentally, you’re about to discover Dudley is still running free, if we can use that expression to talk about someone in prison. The reason the murder by Dudley of his cellmate didn’t lead to severe punitive measures being taken against him by the authorities is that I’m out of ideas for situations and characters with which to conjure up sentences illustrating grammar points, and I needed a guy I could rely on – a guy like John Dudley – to be going about his business as normal. Which adds up to a sad indictment of my imagination. So, without further ado, here come more slivers of action from the Snow King’s sordid life.
Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, the Snow King realised he’d be in deep trouble if the warders caught him with illicit booze again.
The Snow King sat on his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex.
In these example sentences, our participial phrases are Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex. There’s a present participle in each phrase: hiding, smoking and thinking. (I explained how we form present participles in the last blog; scroll down if you want to see the explanation.) Notice how this kind of participial phrase tells us about things happening at the same time as what’s going on in the main clause. While the Snow King is hiding the hooch, he’s realising the depth of the trouble he will find himself in should he get caught with the booze. While the Snow King sits on his bed, he’s smoking and thinking about his ex, who presumably left him for another fella. (I wouldn’t like to be in that guy’s shoes and anywhere near a wood-chopping tool if Dudley gets out of prison.) These sentences are all fine and dandy. The following one isn’t.
Striding across the exercise yard, John sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap.
John can’t be striding across the exercise yard, sitting down next to Big Phil and passing him coke at same time. What I’ve illustrated here with a sentence that exaggerates the error I’m trying to highlight is what goes wrong when writers try to indicate a sequence of events using participial phrases containing present participles. Unfortunately, sequencing isn’t something these phrases are capable of. Try to get them to show that an action takes place at a particular moment in a series of events and they’re all ‘Sorry, mate, that’s above my pay grade. No can do.’ Past-simple-tense verbs, on the other hand, positively lick the faces of sequences of actions that sentences like the one above fail to describe correctly.
John strode across the exercise yard, sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap.
Here’s another example of a sentence illustrating the problem I’m talking about, this time with three phrases with present participles stacked up at the end of it:
John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler, tearing the centre spread into small rectangles, placing a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapping up the powder.
I don’t know how John got the keys to whatever office that is, by the way. I suppose it goes to show that if nothing else, the guy’s resourceful and cunning. Anyway, let’s look at what’s gone wrong here. The first two actions – John going through the drawers and finding the magazine – are nicely arranged in sequence, but then our present participles come along and ruin everything. John can’t be going through the drawers and finding the magazine at the same time as tearing the centre spread into rectangles and wrapping cocaine in those rectangles. Nor can he be tearing up the paper, placing the coke on each piece he creates and wrapping up the powder at the same time, since though the guy is resourceful, he’s not some kind of human octopus. Once again, using the past-simple tense would bring clarity where currently there is discord.
John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler. He tore the centre spread into small rectangles, placed a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapped up the powder.
I’m saying here that participial phrases containing present participles can only be used to describe actions that happen at the same time as the action in a main clause, but maybe there is a little bit of wiggle room. There certainly is according to Raymond Murphy, the author of English Grammar in Use. He says if one short action follows another short action, it’s okay to use a participial phrase containing a present participle, and he uses this as an example:
Taking a key out of his pocket, he opened the door.
I have to say I don’t like that sentence much. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but when I read that sentence I try to visualise someone taking a key out of his pocket and opening a door at one and the same time and I can’t, because that’s not possible. However, this is Mr Raymond Murphy talking here, so I have to sit up and listen – or prostrate myself in front of him and listen, because that’s the kind of respect he and his book deserve. English Grammar in Use is a legend within English teaching circles and contains probably the clearest explanations you’ll find of grammar rules formulated for people for whom English is not their first language. (I’m almost tempted to post another book-as-shrine photo, as I did for The Chicago Manual of Style, but the cover of my copy is too crinkled from use to serve as a model.)
Don’t confuse the participial phrases I’m talking about here with a similar construction, having + past participle, which is used specifically for sequencing. (If you need to know what past participles look like, scroll on down.) Here’s an example of having + past participle in action:
Having wrapped ten grams of coke, John made his way to the rec room to deliver five wraps to Tyneside Mac.
The opening phrase, Having wrapped ten grams of coke, is doing good work and indicating that an action happened before the action in the main clause – John going to the rec room. Nice one, having + past participle!
Now to the subject of dangling present participles at the ends of sentences, which I said I’d cover in this instalment. Let’s remind ourselves what danglers are. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – in the case we’re going to talk about, a participial phrase containing a present participle – and the noun it’s supposed to modify. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to. Take a gander at this:
John looked at the nudie picture, lying on his bed.
This sentence is a little ambiguous, no? It’s not clear whether the intention was to say John is lying on his bed and looking at the nudie picture, or John is looking at the nudie picture that is lying on his bed. Since it was I who wrote the sentence, I can exclusively reveal to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I was imagining myself as an author who meant to say the picture was on the bed. That means lying on his bed is dangling, because it’s not attaching properly to the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to, the nudie picture, and sort of attaching to John instead, but not quite really doing that either. (Maybe it should be defined as a hesitant and indecisive dangling participle.) There’s a simple fix:
John looked at the nudie picture lying on his bed.
If my intention had been to say John was lying on his bed and looking at the picture, which would presumably be on the wall in that case, a good way to rework the sentence would have been:
Lying on his bed, John looked at the nudie picture.
1. Check back over your work and establish whether you’re the type of writer who uses participial phrases containing present participles.
2. If you are, look out for two things. First, make sure you haven’t used participial phrases with present participles to indicate events happening in sequence. Second, make sure the phrases don’t dangle.
3. Rewrite any sentences that have gone wrong.
Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, a carrier pigeon, Morse Code and a torch, etc.
Well, that headline may represent a slight exaggeration of the truth, but we live in momentous times, people, because the writing could be on the wall for one particular misplaced comma.
You may remember that in A Comma You Should Cull, the last instalment of my self-editing series, I recommended that writers take out commas before final conjunctions in compound predicates. I pointed out that by doing so, authors give passages in which those commas are culled just a little more forward momentum than they otherwise have. I also mentioned that The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule 6.29 recommends you shouldn’t use such commas, but I said the rule is ‘badly written and confusing’, which might explain why it often isn’t applied correctly. (I found that very difficult to write, by the way. I love The Chicago Manual of Style. If the University of Chicago Press built a shrine to the manual, I would happily travel all the way to the States from my Mediterranean island just to chant, burn incense and strum a guitar in front of said shrine – and I can’t even play the guitar.)
Writing that post helped me collect my thoughts on the topic, and last Sunday I decided I might as well sit down and write an email to CMOS sharing my thinking with them, too.
CMOS replied yesterday. And they said they agreed with me.
They didn’t quite come out and say that the next edition of the manual is going to be called Marcus Trower’s Chicago Manual of Style, but they sort of implied it by telling me they’re going to put my note in the file for the next edition. So that’s the message I’m taking home, anyway. Here’s our correspondence:
The Chicago Manual of Style is a truly wonderful resource. I’m a copy editor and a Brit, and no style manual in the UK comes anywhere near to matching CMOS in terms of range and detail. With CMOS by my side, or a few clicks away online, I feel like I have an authoritative companion as I travel the highways and byways of written English. But there’s a but coming. Very occasionally I detect what I perceive to be a glitch in the manual, and I’d like to talk a little about 6.29, the rule for commas with compound predicates, because I believe that, with a little adjustment, 6.29 would get across what I’m fairly sure is its intended meaning, something the rule isn’t quite doing at the moment. Here is the first sentence of the two-sentence rule:
A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate—that is, two or more verbs having the same subject, as distinct from two independent clauses (see 6.28).
The problem here is that though the rule acknowledges that a compound predicate can consist of more than two verbs, it’s formulated for a two-verb compound predicate only. Here’s a three-verb compound predicate:
John got up, went to the kitchen and made coffee.
This compound predicate has three parts, and a comma separates the first part, “John got up,” from the second part, “went to the kitchen.” If the sentence had four parts, there would be two commas, etc., etc. So, the way the rule is currently phrased is not quite correct, since commas are normally used between parts of a compound predicate, just not the final two parts. A better way to phrase the rule might be:
A comma should not be used between the final two parts of a compound predicate, unless using a comma would prevent a misreading.
In the case of a two-verb compound predicate, the first and second parts are also the last two parts; therefore, no comma is used.
Might I suggest you also give a three-verb compound predicate as an example in 6.29, alongside the two two-verbers you currently have. I know from experience that 6.29 can create a little confusion among editors and writers, and I think that providing a three-verb sentence to illustrate the rule would help immensely. Writers and editors often mistake a sentence with a three-verb compound predicate or more for a list and place a comma before and, when and is the final conjunction, because they believe they are adding a serial comma. If you gave a three-verb example sentence with a compound predicate without a comma separating the last two parts, that would help clarify the difference between a list and a compound predicate.
The Reply from CMOS
Thank you very much for taking the time to explain this issue. I agree with you! I’ll be happy to put your note in the file for the next edition.
August 2014 Update
There was I, happy in the belief that I was going to play a small part in comma-use history, when I was perusing The Chicago Manual of Style’s website and, lo and behold, I came across an edited version of my query being given as a question in the Q&A section, along with a very different response from the one above. It would appear that, on further reflection, the good people at Chicago decided that no, there is a need for a second comma in a clause with a three-verb compound predicate, since they see it as a series in need of a serial comma. (Personally, I find that an odd way of looking at things, but I’ll go into my reasoning another time perhaps.) Which means that if you want to follow Chicago style, a second comma is needed in a sentence like the one that follows, where it’s been added.
John got up, went to the kitchen, and made coffee.
The good news is that my query provoked CMOS into giving a clarification of a poorly explained rule, and maybe 6.29 will be better written in the seventeenth incarnation of the style bible. We can only hope.