Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Day I Become the Tense Mistress

There are many grammatical “things” that bother me (coincidentally enough, the use of the word things is not one of them), but sometimes…certain aspects of grammar just bother me more than others.

Through one of my classes, I have learned a lot about myself, as far as grammatical pet peeves go. Some of them are trivial. Once, I got excited because someone properly used the word coincidentally in a fiction story where many people would have improperly used the word ironically.

For anyone who’s interested:

Coincidentally is the same as coincidently. The former version was first used in 1837, while the latter was first used in 1629. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, they mean “in a coincident manner; concurrently, at the same time.”

Ironically, on the other hand, means “in an ironical manner, by way of irony,” and was first used in this sense in 1576. The OED also lists two alternative meanings—the first “with dissimulation or personation,” which the OED considers obsolete, dating around 1682. The second alternative meaning is a little bit saddening. Labeled a “draft addition” from 2001, the OED says: “in weakened, typically parenthetical use, often opening a sentence: paradoxically, curiously, unexpectedly, coincidentally,” a definition that dates back to 1907 and has documentation as recently as 1997. According to this definition, it seems as though the two words – ironically and coincidentally – could be used as synonyms.

However, by the accepted, prescriptive* definition, they cannot be.

But the ironically vs. coincidentally debate is just one little tick mark in my life. The real thing that bugs me, more than anything, is improper use of tense.

I say “bugs” lightly because it’s completely possible for me to read through an entire story/paper/article and not be absolutely turned off by a weird or awkward tense shift. I can, as well, write articles and stories in which tenses shift appropriately. I can even write paragraphs in which there are multiple tenses. The prescriptivist side of me should really hate this, but for some reason it doesn’t.

And so it is very ironic that I should be christened The Tense Mistress by a good friend.

You see, I recently took to highlighting tense shifts in my creative writing workshop class. Oh sure, I bet it’s a little annoying to get a manuscript back with pink and green highlighting on every verb on the last two or three pages….or the entire story. But the moral is to pick one. And pick the best one. Discussion of this quickly prompted my friends and me to discuss the varying tenses, which I will share with you now.

I’m sure you know the basic past and present…and the debated future tense. But did you know that it went much further than that? That not all past tense verbs were created equal? That there is something called aspect that can totally throw off the flow of your writing? Oh, I’m sure once upon a blue moon you did, but you might have forgotten… or never quite grasped the concept – and that is why I’m here.

The present tense is just as it seems—the here and now. I read, I write, I speak, I type, I dream.

The present progressive shows that an action is going on. Right now, I’m typing this blog about grammar. The present progressive is formed by a present-tense, conjugated verb and the progressive participle (also known as the –ing form) of a verb. Here, present is your tense and progressive is your aspect.

The present perfect shows that an action happened in the past and is, now, affecting the present. I have read a few papers with erratic tense shifts. The present perfect is formed by a present-tense, conjugated verb and the past participle a verb. Let’s keep in mind that a past participle is not the -ed form of a verb. Again, this has present tense and perfect aspect.

To make it even more complicated, you also have simple past, past perfect and past progressive. The simple past is the most basic past tense, often remembered as the -ed form of a verb. I read a book and wrote my paper over it. It happened already—it’s done and over.

The past progressive shows that one action was happening when another happened. I was walking my dog when it started raining. The past progressive, similar to the present progressive, is formed by a past-tense, conjugated verb and the progressive participle of another verb. Notice here that started is in the simple past. You will have used those two together. Can you guess what this is? Past tense and progressive aspect.

Past perfect shows that one action in the past is affected by something that happened even further in the past. I had gone to the store when the power went out. Similar to the present perfect, it is formed with a past-tense, conjugated verb and the past participle of a verb. Again, notice how went is in the simple past. How about now? What? Past tense and perfect aspect? Right you are, dear reader!

While you may not think about how important it actually is, tense is one of those things that can make-or-break your paper—any paper. Tense affects more than just creative writing; it’s an integral aspect to research or other documented papers for any subject matter. Let’s all jump on the appropriate-tense bandwagon and get it right, people!

*Note: Prescriptivism is a school of grammatical thought in which usage is judged as correct or incorrect, typically based on rules stemming from Latin grammar.

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