Friday, March 18, 2011

Narrative tenses are there for a reason - to drive the narrative

Were you looking for exercises? - This post is a discussion about a particular example of narrative tense use. If you were looking for some exercises on narrative tenses, I have posted some here.
Discussion - Polish students sometimes complain about the English tense system, asking why we need so many? Their point being that Polish only has three tenses.
My own theory is that Polish actually has five tenses, because many verbs come in pairs, one in imperfective aspect (with three forms, roughly equivalent to present simple/continuous, past continuous and future continuous) and the other in perfective aspect (with two forms, roughly equivalent to past simple and future simple).
But they are listed separately in dictionaries, so I imagine Poles consider them, no doubt rightly, to be separate verbs.
In any case it's considerably less than English's 12, more if you count used to, going to etc. (I expect I should have said fewer there rather than less, but less was what first came to mind, and sounds more natural to me, so it stays.)
I came across a short passage the other day that illustrates rather well, I think, the advantages a rich palette of tenses can give. It was on the language blog Pain in the English (link below), where people ask questions about 'grey areas in English', and others give their opinions. I recently joined in one of the discussions

 

The background

A reader, who I will call the questioner, had quoted a sentence from 'Advanced English CAE'. (I don't know if he was referring to the exam or a course book.)
Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, had tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with the tractor.
He said that he'd prefer:
Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and pulled it out with the tractor.
And asked for comments. His basic concern seemed to be that because the events happened so quickly one after the other, there was no justification for using Past Perfect, and thought a simple sequence of events (using Past Simple) would be better.
To me, the amended version, while grammatically perfectly correct, seemed to lack the dramatic impact of the original, but I didn't immediately see the problem, being in such a hurry to get my pithy comment in before anyone else had the idea. They had (had the idea) of course, which I had completely missed.
But blog comments sometimes work that way. So I thought I'd have a bit of a longer and more leisurely look at this text, trying my hand at a little language analysis, which really isn't my forte, but here goes.

The story

One of the other readers asked for more context, and so we got a bit more of the extract
I braked to avoid hitting it and the car skidded out of control on the water and mud on the road and into the ditch. I managed to get out through the window. The problem now was that the car was filling up with water and mud.
Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, had tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with a tractor.

Words and expressions in the extract

  • it - presumably something in the road, maybe Barry's tractor?
  • skidded - to skid: (usually of a vehicle) to slide sideways or forwards in an uncontrolled way
  • ditch - a long channel dug at the side of a field or road, to hold or take away water
  • bumper - a bar fixed to the front and back of a car, etc. to reduce the effect if it hits anything

The problem

Because the questioner was concerned with the use of the Past Perfect, I didn't at first notice that it wasn't the change of the first verb from Past Perfect to Past Simple that was really the problem. I think I could have lived with (or nearly, as I'll explain a bit later on):
Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with the tractor.
It was changing the second verb from Past Continuous to Past Simple that took the drama out of the new version. Why? Well, the clue is in the preceding sentences. First we have a sequence of events, using exclusively Past Simple:
I braked to avoid hitting it and the car skidded out of control on the water and mud on the road and into the ditch. I managed to get out through the window.
But then we have this:
The problem now was that the car was filling up with water and mud.
There are two signals that something has changed here - the word now, and the use of Past Continuous.

Past Continuous

Let's just remind ourselves of the usual uses of the Past Continuous:
  • For actions in the past around a certain time
    At four o'clock yesterday afternoon I was playing tennis.
  • For a longer action in the past interrupted by a short one
    We were watching the tennis when it started to rain.
  • For longer actions which are more to do with states than events
    She was wearing a raincoat and (was) carrying an umbrella.
  • For setting the scene at the beginning of a story
    He was driving along a quiet country road ...
But I think we have a different use here. Together with that now, the use of Past Continuous - the car was filling up with water and mud - pulls us right into the story. It is now happening in front of our eyes. And the next sentence (the sentence under discussion), in its original form, continues this sense of unfolding drama.
Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, had tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with the tractor.
What's more, the phrase - who was wearing enormous rubber boots - which had seemed a bit extra to requirements in the all Simple Past version, now makes much more sense. We can imagine Barry in his huge wellies jumping from his tractor into the ditch full of mud and water, tying the rope to the car, before jumping back into the tractor and pulling the car out of the ditch. It's that much more active.
And what about that Past Perfect which caused all the fuss in the first place? I said I could live with:
Within seconds Barry, who was wearing enormous rubber boots, tied a rope to the front bumper of the car and was pulling it out with the tractor.
Or nearly. We need something like - and was now pulling it out to separate the two actions. Or of course we could just leave the first part in Past Perfect - as in the original.

Past Perfect

I think the problem started with a basic misunderstanding about the nature of Past Perfect. As I understand it, the use of Past Perfect is not so much to do with any time difference between two actions, but the fact that it is important that one action happened before another. That it only took a matter of seconds is neither here nor there.
So an unnecessary worry about a non-existent 'misuse' led the questioner to rewrite the story in a way which is flat, without any of the narrative drama of the original. By using only Simple Past we simply have a series of completed actions. The story's over, finished and done with before we've even started. No action, no drama!

What is grammar for?

I do think you can get too hung up about particular grammar points and forget that grammar is there to help us express ourselves effectively, not to limit our creativity. Shouldn't we be looking for excuses to use all those lovely colours in that rich palette of tenses, not reasons to restrict their use?
And back to the two versions. As another commenter said:
If we were writing this in an incident report for a security company, the simpler version of the latter example would be the way to go. However it would be death-on-paper for any author to use the latter in storytelling as the fluid motion of the narrative would be brought to a screeching halt.
Now why couldn't I have thought of that?

You can read the original discussion at Pain in the English

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