Thursday 8 December 2016

Some thoughts on two important past tenses

The imperfect
This sort of describes itself. It’s used for an incomplete action. In French it is expressed by in endings on a certain part of the verb or “je travaillais” or “il allait”. These two can mean three different things in English: I would work, I used to work, or I was working and he would go, he used to go or he was going. All are incomplete, continuous and / or repeated actions.
Don’t say “She was sitting”, say “She sat” say some of the gurus. However, I’d argue that these two phrases carry subtle but important different meanings. “She was sitting” implies an interrupted action. It also slows the pace somewhat and makes the action part of the setting. “She would sit” implies a repeated action with a sense of approval from the subject whereas “used to” implies a repeated action that may not be continued.
“’She was sitting’” is too passive,” say some of the gurus. I don’t agree. It has nothing to do with activity or passivity. It has to do with exact meaning.
I was very pleased that a colleague from a rival institution to the one where I used to teach recommended to a critique group friend of mine in her Masters class that she should consider using this tense.  
This tense exists in some form or other in all languages. Let’s make sure we use it to pinpoint our meaning.

The pluperfect

The “plus” perfect if you like. It means you go back one further stage in the past. The word “had” is important here. Here’s an example: “He had been to market earlier. There hadn’t been as many people there as usual so he was able to get back by ten. Now he was sitting in the garden enjoying the sun. The phone rang. Darn. He’d better answer it.”
Again the gurus will recommend avoiding this tense. I’m afraid I do tend to obey this time though I do the recommended trick of using it once or twice to show that we’re that one stage further back in the past and then using the normal past tense, so that we get something like this:
“He had been to the market earlier and Jed had recommended the Kelly Bronze turkeys.  He’d agreed to buy one and whistled to himself as he gave Jed his week’s salary. He hoped Marge would be pleased with his purchase. He set off home, daydreaming about Christmas dinner.
As he approached the house he began to feel sick. “Here goes,” he thought as he slid his key into the lock.””
Again, this exists in all grammars though sometimes a language may have an idiomatic way of expressing it.
In pre-wordprocessing days my father-in-law paid a young woman in the village to type up his thesis. Every time he’d written “had” as part of a pluperfect, she’d typed “has” or “have.”
“I don’t think they have a pluperfect in Welsh,” said my father-in-law.
Ah but they do, sort of. You may often hear Welsh people saying something like “He was after having cooked his supper.” A little word they use with a verb is very similar to the word for “after” in Welsh. So, the pluperfect is simple: “He was after having …. “

Universal grammar?

It seems we need all of these nuances of meaning and a grammatical form for them in each language allows them to exist. Let’s make the most of our language to make our meaning crystal clear, even if it means ignoring some of the current trends.                               


1 comment:

Terry Tyler said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. That's me applauding this piece. The problem, I think, is that many of these 'gurus' don't actually know the mechanics of the language. Yes, I ignore them, too, and write was sounds and feels right.