Over time the way that we use words and phrases has a tendency to change. Ideally this would work towards the evolution and continued improvement of the language. As of late, however, the more common trend is bending the rules and taking shortcuts until these incorrect methods of writing become the accepted norms. In this week’s guest blog, author Fran Stewart shares her thoughts on the subject.
Was / Had Been / Is
By Fran Stewart
The English language expands and contracts, usually without our being aware of it. Language always evolves, with the additions of new words as new technologies come into their own, as musical forms or pop cultural icons rise or wane in popularity.
This recent change, though, seems more basic to me than the simple addition of words. We seem to have forgotten what it was to remember the past. I’d noticed the change in newspaper quotations, in magazine interviews, and in the conversations of people around me. But it all came to an explosive awareness recently when I heard a Public Radio commentator – that’s right, National Public Radio, that bastion of proper speech and erudite ideas – say, “So here I am walking down the street yesterday, and . . .”
Whatever happened to past tense? There I was yesterday, walking down the street. The street experience happened yesterday, so wouldn’t past tense be appropriate in reporting it? Apparently not. More and more, I find that people tend to think in present tense, speak in present tense, and write entire novels in that same tense. The use of the present tense is so ubiquitous now, that I’ve experimented with mentioning it to writers with whom I’ve been speaking, calling their attention to their own use of the present tense, only to be met with incredulous denials. “I don’t do that,” they’ve said. “Do I?”
Maybe I’m more aware of past versus present since I began writing the ScotShop Mysteries. A Wee Murder in My Shop, the first book in the series, introduces Macbeath Donlevy Freusach Findlay Macearachar Macpheidiran of Clan Farquharson, otherwise known as Dirk. Did I mention that Dirk is the wonderful ghost of a 14th century Scotsman? The 14th century was a time during which the English language changed drastically, from the almost entirely incomprehensible (to us) Old English to the Middle English used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.
I’ve had great fun listening to Dirk talk and watching as he struggles to integrate 21st-century Americanisms into his ghostly psyche. He’s in the process of gradually enhancing the vocabulary of Peggy Winn, owner of the ScotShop, with words like whinge and beceorest. When Dirk tells Peggy Ye needna whinge so, or Why d’ye beceorest when ye canna do any the thing about it? she can usually decipher the meaning from the context in which he says these things. (I’m happy to report that the narrator for the WEE MURDER audiobook got Dirk’s voice and accent exactly right.) Whinge and beceorest are similar in the same way complain and grumble are—they’re both nuances of the same sort of idea. But each one adds its own flavor, one closer to a whine; the other nearer to a grouch. And those nuances are part of the beauty of the English language.
For decades, I’ve had a personal vendetta against the Smurfs, who taught an entire generation that the use of an exact word was never necessary when one could simply use smurf as a verb, a noun, any part of speech. Now, I don’t consider this move to expressing oneself almost exclusively in present tense to be nearly as insidious as the dumbing-down of our language by the little blue critters (or rather, by their TV script-writers). It does give me pause though, to wonder whatever will happen to a handy little word like had. As every writer knows, or should know, when we write in past tense, if we have to go even farther back in time, we stick in a had (or two) to make the timing clear. After that, we can dispense with the auxiliary word. Here’s an example:
Gladiola Grim played the piano at every social function. We hated it. Her sense of rhythm had always been atrocious, but the last time I heard her play, just before she was murdered, she exceeded our lowest expectations when she executed her variations on Moonlight Sonata. I use the term executed judiciously, of course, since poor Beethoven would have gleefully strangled her if the stranger wearing a black cape hadn’t obliged shortly after the musical fiasco.
There is no need, as you can see, to put another had before the word exceeded. The timing is perfectly clear. Without the past tenses and past perfects, though, the chronology becomes harder to follow:
Gladiola Grim plays the piano at every social function. We hate it. Her sense of rhythm is atrocious, but the last time I’m listening to her play, just before she’s murdered, she exceeds our lowest expectations when she executes her variations on Moonlight Sonata. I use the term executes judiciously, of course. Poor Beethoven misses out on strangling her because the stranger wearing a black cape beats him to it.
I would like to keep had in the running. If English has to evolve—and what language doesn’t?—Dirk and I would vote for clarity rather than what I see as a lazy approach to tenses.
Fran Stewart is the author of the Biscuit McKee Mysteries – Gray as Ashes is the seventh book in that series – as well as a standalone mystery – A Slaying Song Tonight, set during the Great Depression. Her non-fiction work includes From the Tip of My Pen: A Workbook for Writers. Her new ScotShop Mystery Series from Berkley Press began with A Wee Murder in My Shop. The second book in that series, A Wee Doe of Death, was released in early 2016. Book number 3 of the ScotShop Mysteries, A Wee Homicide in the Hotel, will be released February 7, 2017. Fran lives quietly with various rescued cats beside a creek on the other side of Hog Mountain, Georgia, northeast of Atlanta. She is a member of the National League of American Pen Women, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America. Read more about Fran and her works at www.franstewart.com
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