GRATE RITING? -- Bill Kirton
‘You have been a grate riter…’
So begins the message on a card from my granddaughter which I've kept and treasure. She made it quite a long time ago to welcome me on a visit to her and her parents. The greeting didn’t then go on to analyse my opus or offer any exegetical criticism, constructive or otherwise, so back then I couldn’t really ask her to elucidate her choice of tense, but I found it interesting. ‘You have been’ doesn’t have the negative implications of ‘You were’. ‘You were’ means you’re no longer whatever it is, as in ‘You were a grate riter but now you’re crap’. However, ‘have been’ still does give you the feeling that it needs to be qualified in some way. You expect it to be followed by ‘but’, as in ‘You have been a grate riter but you need to pay more attention to your use of the imperfect subjunctive’.
Playing with tenses is great (or grate). There’s a very active sequence in Flaubert’s Salammbô where leaders of the mercenary armies get together and one of them leaps on a table and rushes up and down exhorting the others and brandishing his sword. But the interesting thing is that Flaubert didn’t use the obvious tense which, for actions, is usually the Past Historic: ‘He jumped on the table, unsheathed his sword and brandished it as he ran amongst them’ (NB this isn’t a translation, just an example of a sequence). Instead, he used the Imperfect tense. A clumsy English version would be: ‘He was jumping on the table, unsheathing his sword and brandishing it as he was running amongst them.
It has a strange effect, doesn’t it? Even if this is a one-off event, instead of describing it as a sequence of actions, he’s fusing them all into a sort of status, he extends them beyond the event they’re describing. Rather than convey self-contained, discrete actions, he’s creating a mood of activity.
The other habitual form of a tense intended to describe actions in the past is the Perfect tense – ‘I have eaten’, ‘they have gone’, and so on. What would the effect be if Flaubert had used that? ‘He has jumped on the table, unsheathed his sword and brandished it as he has run amongst them’. Again, a strange usage. It all sounds as if it’s preparation for some other definitive event or action. You can imagine it continuing; ‘… and now he stands there, ready to (whatever)’.
For some bizarre reason, the Perfect seems to be the preferred tense of jockeys. When jump jockeys are interviewed about a race, they tend to say things such as, ‘He’s come up to the fence and he’s got in a bit close but he’s managed to pick up nicely’. If we were writing that as an objective, narrative sequence, it would be ‘He came up … got in a bit close … and managed …’ The jockeys’ choice, however, does suit their purpose because, rather than describe it all as something in the past that’s over and done with, it gives their description the immediacy it had for them during the race.
(I can’t resist a non-relevant parenthesis here because, relying as it does on tenses, it’s always been a favourite of mine. I’ve no idea where it originated but I salute whoever’s responsible for it. It’s magnificent.
And what is ‘it’? simply this:
‘I am the ghost of Christmas Future Perfect Conditional,’ said the Spirit, ‘I bring news of what would have been going to happen if you were not to have been going to change your ways.’)
Back to my theme: I think enough time may have now passed since that long ago visit for me to have the requisite chat with my granddaughter about her take on tense-aspect morphology. And the moral of the story for wordsmiths in general? If you, too, want to be a grate riter, experiment with tenses.