Friday, August 28, 2009

Tense Moments

I'm no grammar expert. That sort of thing is instinctive for me, and I usually feel my way through a sentence. As for the grammar grey areas well . . .

I recently came across a bit of a tangle that was a little hard to resolve. A nice reader pointed out there were errors in tense in one section of my work. Try as I might, I could not see these. Then a friend of mine with a more literary background helped me out. His take was that the source of the comment was a certain sentence construction I sometimes use - specifically he said "-you tend to use a present tense verb modified by a prior past tense clause".

For example: Teag turned and galloped down the hill, issuing orders to his men as he went.

Now the source of confusion (if I have got this right) as that the second part of this sentence is in present progressive (present continuous) tense - events happening now - whereas the first part is in past tense.

So is the use of this sort of sentence valid or not? My smart literary friend says there is really nothing wrong with it, although other close friends trained in syntax and grammar maintain that this should be changed to either:

Teag turned and galloped down the hill, he issued orders to his men as he went. (Which kind of reads a little strange to me) or

Teag turned and galloped down the hill. He issued orders to his men as he went. (Which feels 'dead' compared to the original)

This is really getting into a grammar grey area (well at least for me).

Wondering over the source of this - it must have crept into my subconscious somewhere - I flicked through a few novels on my shelf and found this exact thing used reasonably frequently in text. Right. So somewhere its passed an editor. At least in those books.

Here are some quotes from David Gemmell's Dark Prince.

"For a moment only Philip's face softened, his arm rising as if to reach out to his son."

"Her fingers touched his face, stroking the skin"

Now there is also past continuous tense - or past progressive (imperfect) tense. Can past tense and past continuous be used together, if so do the '-ing' words above fall into the present continuous or past continuous category?

What do people think? Is there a problem leaving it as it is or should these be corrected every time?


annathepiper said...

Teag turned and galloped down the hill, he issued orders to his men as he went. (Which kind of reads a little strange to me)

This looks entirely incorrect to me--never mind strange. This is two sentences spliced together with a comma, and that's never been correct as far as I know.

I'd say stick with the original version of the sentence. It's definitely the best of the three.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, anna. I could not bring myself to use that one.

Its the fact that I could not really get any global agreement on this that prompted me to do the post.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I think if it works, don't change it!

Writing fiction isn't about getting everything grammatically correct, it's about the capturing the reader.

matapam said...

Your way sounds best to me. Now, if it was an editor with a contract who said change it, I'd change it. But yours still flowed, where the others clunk.


Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena and matapam. You're right - for a novel atmosphere and flow are king.

Hey, I'm feeling better now.:)

John Lambshead said...

If 'correct' ruins the flow of the story and there is no easy way to fix it then stuff the rules of grammar.

I have wrecked stories by using complex sentence constructions while being pedantic about grammar.


C Kelsey said...

Part of the joy of reading a novel is the method the author uses to convey the exact same information that sound and video convey in a movie. Your original sentence would be the same as the camera following a sweeping leap into a saddle, then turning and showing Teag's perspective as he issues orders. Works for me. In fact, that sentence (grammatically correct or not) does a much better job of letting me see the scene in my head *and* convey a moment of flurried action.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, John. When confronted by people who know more grammar than I do I rapidly lose confidence. But hell - we are the ones telling the story!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. That is one of the frustrating things about this. Having to chop things up and worry about the grammatical correctness really disrupts the flow.

And as matapam and Rowena were saying earlier, I think its the flow that is really king in a novel.

Not that its necessarily wrong in any case. Not even people who *know* seem all that certain.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I agree with the others. Stick with how you wrote it. Teag turned and galloped down the hill, he issued orders to his men as he went sent me back to freshman English at Baylor more years ago than I care to admit. The professor handed out a page, single spaced, on how to flunk a paper. Three misspelled words -- flunk. Two comma faults - flunk. Two dangling modifiers -- flunk. Well, you get the idea. She had a lot of papers written in the See Jack. See Jack run. See Jack stop. formula because no one could remember all the "rules".

If it flows and you get your point across, keep it. Unless, as Pam said, it's an editor who is giving you money. Then see if you can strike a compromise. Now I'm going to try to forget the ulcer I developed so long ago and not let the horror of that class interfere with my writing today.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the others. Use whatever sounds right and is clear to understand. The two "corrections" sounded quite off, and I don't even think an editor would've changed your original version to one of them. Readers are used to reading your version. It doesn't bring them out of the story at all.

Linda Davis

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. That sounds like one class I would have been glad to miss. Mind you, it does give me flashback to one particularly hard case Scottish English teacher I had in high school. He delighted in demolishing my work, yet refused to give me any useful feedback. Later I realised it was because it didn't have a clue.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. Well it looks to be just about unanimous!

If think the decision is pretty clear when you have a paying editor making suggestions.

The thing that got me with this one was whether some editor who might pay me would get thrown out of the story by a clanger and toss the manuscript.

It seems as though people find it flows better, so that nice to know.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Your way sounds best to me, Chris, and I used to TEACH English Composition. Also ESL. Yes, the first part of the sentence is in the past, and the second was coeval with that past action. It also sounds much more "actiony."

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Sarah. If I ever need a note from the teacher, now I know who to contact.:)

Kate said...

This is where knowing when to throw the rulebook away helps. The grammar takes second place - first place is, like just about everyone else here has said, evoking the right feel.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. You're right, and that pretty much what I would have instinctively gone with. But these technical questions throw my confidence in my natural process. Nice to know I'm on the right track.