English Grammar: a contradiction in terms. #1: past tenses

This is a new series where I will give examples of standard English that are ungrammatical. I'm not talking about idiom, nor about those exceptions that escape the rules. These will not be obscure, nor exceptional, just correct English that is grammatical nonsense.

A particular feature of English tenses is that any action, past, present or future, can be either completed or continuous (the terms usually used when talking about English; you will understand why, I hope, by the time I've finished). When talking about other languages, or about language in general, grammarians use the terms perfect and imperfect.

Etymologically, the word perfect just means "entirely completed" or "fully made". This is the sense in which it is used in grammar. A perfect action is one that is wholly completed:

"Mr Glover made a pair of gloves, then went to bed."

("Mr. Gantier fabriqua un pair de gants, puis se coucha." - because this sounds like a line from a story, the passé simple seems required, though we could say: "Mr Gantier a fabriqué un pair de gants, puis s'est couché.")

An imperfect action is one that was, is, or will be ongoing, uncompleted or unfinished.

"For most of his life, Mr Glover made gloves."

("Durant la plupart de sa vie, Mr. Gantier fabriquait des gants.")

You will notice that while in English the form of the verb is the same ("made"), in French it is fabriquait instead of a fabriqué.

But, because Grammar likes to try to describe both the meaning and the form of the word at the same time, in French we have the perfect tenses:

  • passé simple (past historic)
  • passé composé (past perfect)
and the imperfect tense:
  • imparfait (imperfect or past continuous)
Whereas in English we have as our perfect tense:
  • simple past ("He killed a rat .")
And as our imperfect tenses
  • past imperfect ("He killed rats for a living.")
  • past continuous ("He used to be a ratcatcher.")
I have already pointed out that English is a contextual language. This is an fine example of just how far context can go. Whereas in French you can tell the tense as soon as you have read the verb, in English you have to read the entire sentence to tell the tense of the verb.

Il tua [le rat] - past historic again, but never mind; as soon as we read the verb we can identify its tense.
Il tuait [les rats pour ganger sa vie] - imperfect this time, and again the tense of the verb readily identified without a need for the rest of the sentence. Here's the same again in English:

He killed …
He killed …

Anyone care to guess which is which?

A Grammarian would say: we use the same construction in English to indicate a perfect and an imperfect tense. The Frenchman, to his inevitable chagrin, must determine the tense of the verb from the meaning of the entire sentence.

Grammar likes to pretend that verbs have tenses, because in most of the languages known to grammar, the tense is communicated by inflections (changes in sounds, like vowel switching or ending changes) or by the presence of auxiliaries (small words that affect the meaning of the verb). But English neatly demonstrates that it is sentences that have tenses, and that some languages use the verb to communicate them.

Even in Classical Latin, where the verb is King, so much convoluted fun can be had with tenses that at times, it is the paragraph, or the entire text, that has tense. But in simple SOV* statements in Latin, the verb and only the verb communicates tense, which is I believe the cause of modern grammar's mistaken assertion that tense is the province of verbs. Verbs deal with actions, but at best contribute to our understanding of tense.

In English, therefore, we avoid the terms "perfect" and "imperfect", and hope to teach the student to recognize when a sentence is describing a completed action or a continuous action. And possibly use exactly the same construction regardless.


"I died. Every day for a year, I died. You might say it was my purpose or profession. But at last, at the year's end, I did it again, but this time, one final time, I died for good and all."

I daresay you can come up with better examples of confusion between tenses. I contend that in this particular four sentence statement, the tense is a narrative past. This is a special tense we have in English where all is forgiven by the reader as soon as he realizes that what happens is happening in the past.

* This would normaly be Subject Verb Object, but Classical Latin likes to place the verb in a position of honour, at the end of the sentence.


Dogs and Dragons

Regular readers will know that my editing blog occasionally hosts sociological or political rants that are then tenuously connected with something to do with writing. This is one such post.

The frankly bizarre case of Lennox the Dog has caused some considerable upset, and rightly so. I confess I really didn't think that the British or the Irish would stand for such a thing, and indeed an awful lot of them protested very strongly, and many took all sorts of action to seek a solution that would not result in the killing of a family pet.

I don't wish to speculate on the storm of incompetence, arse-covering, buck-passing and blinkered jobsworthing that must have been behind it.

I do, however, have some thoughts about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). Lennox is, technically, a victim of BSL. BSL is rife in the UK and in the USA, and in both countries it is imposed variously, at both local and national levels. When you move to a new town with your family and the authorities tell you your dog can't come along, it feels like racism. Why is that?

Supposing you strike a pedestrian with your car at 30mph (50kph) you are most unlikely to kill them, and somewhat unlikely to cause serious harm. The same is not true at 60mph.
If a dog is raised to be fearful and aggressive, and it is a cairn terrier, when it attacks you, assuming it catches you, it might well draw a little blood. If it is a doberman*, it will chase you down and kill you.
Just as a gun is not dangerous unless there is a dangerous and stupid person to pull the trigger. So you deprive dangerous and stupid people (that's pretty much all of us) by controlling the availability of guns. If dogs raised by dangerous, stupid, aggressive people become dangerous themselves, surely it is better that such people cannot acquire dogs that have the physical characteristics necessary to kill you (size, speed and strength). So why are dogs a special case?

Guns are intended to be dangerous. Cars can be dangerous if adequate care is not taken. Dogs must be made dangerous on purpose. It follows that the person who owns a dangerous dog is himself dangerous, not to mention cruel. I put it to you that a person who owns a dangerous dog who is not dangerous and cruel will attempt to improve the dog's temperament and failing that have it humanely destroyed**.

BSL, therefore, does arbitrary harm to dogs and the families that own them without addressing the issue of the people that create dangerous dogs in the first place. Only legislation that discriminates on size could deprive the dangerous people of potentially dangerous dogs. But this isn't about the dogs. The dog just happens to be the weapon of choice, but deprive dangerous and cruel people of one weapon, and they'll find another. Weapons are pretty easy to improvise.

There is another reason why dogs are a special case. It is that we have coexisted with them probably since we first started forming social groupings. Dogs are part of our families and part of our society. There is growing evidence that human and canine cognition coevolved*** — that dogs created us almost as much as we created them. If you grew up with dogs and have ever lived for a while without one, you will know what I mean when I say that I feel handicapped if I don't have a dog.

So a person's dog can tell you a lot about the person. And if the person's dog is dangerous, unpredictable, fearful and aggressive, that should tell you that the person at the very least needs therapy, and at worst needs to be in a secure unit.

Which by a very roundabout and tenuous root brings me to the shortage of dogs in literature. Everone can tell you about Jack London. London often makes the dog, and it's relationship with people, central to the story. I prefer (when showing examples of the relationship of dogs with human society) Laurens Van der Post, who in both fiction and non-fiction never fails to mention the presence and role of dogs; he is strongly aware of their importance.

I frequently feel their absence in both historical novels and in fantasy, even more than in books with a more modern setting. Until about 1900, living without a dog was unthinkable for most people. Dogs variously belong to individuals, to families, to tribes or villages, to noone, but they are always there, and they are usually part of us. Throughout the middle ages a dog was a necessity.

Which makes it all the more odd that they are so often absent from fantasy, which usually has a medieval setting of some kind, and indeed equally odd that they are absent from post-apocalyptics. I for one wouldn't even begin to consider trying to survive a Zombie Apocalypse without a dog or two.

A number of recent fantasy books have, to a certain extent, redressed this, by replacing the man-dog relationship of the main protagonist with a man-dragon relationship. I guess the dragon as a fantasy dog is not a big stretch. Are there others?

In any case, read London, read Van der Post ("Story Like the Wind" is the place to start), and remember that dogs are only domesticated in that we and they became domestic at about the same time in our shared histories. Remember that our species includes theirs.

* the doberman is a scary dog, right? Dobermans that are raised as guard dogs have their tails and ears docked. Dogs use their tail and ears for visual communication at medium distance. A dog that has had them cut short cannot clearly indicate his intentions either to people or to other dogs. As a result, everyone it meets is nervous of it. This makes the dog unpredictable and aggressive, because it is afraid of all those people and dogs who are nervous of it. In short, the dog's ability to communicate is handicapped as a quick and easy way to make the dog more aggressive and frightening.
Dobermans raised unmutilated are kind, friendly and playful. I once spent a whole afternoon playing with a pair of them on a beach in Cornwall. One of them seemed to be deliberately clowning, by walking through the shallow surf like a dressage pony, provoking gales of laughter.
** I have no objection to the term 'euthenased' being applied to dogs. It just isn't the first vocabulary that occurs to me.
*** Google: anthropology and dogs


Weird Words #7: The Devout Skeptic

Here's a linguistic curiosity: devout skepticism.

These two words are, of course, simple when taken on their own. Their meanings are little changed in the couple of thousand years they have existed for.

devout is an adjective describing the attitude of someone who has made a vow towards the object of the vow

skepticism is a school of Greek philosophy at whose core is the idea that nothing can be known. A skeptic, therefore has a belief: that you can have evidence, and you can create theories based on the evidence, but there is no underlying knowledge corresponding to the evidence and the theory. So you are obliged to use evidence and theory in order to get by on what is a sort of best guess at a description of reality.

Historically, this places the skeptic in opposition to the religious, since the religious asserts that you can have knowledge, that knowledge comes from God, that you can be certain of this knowledge without any evidence.

You might be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that a devout skeptic was one who doubted everything on principle. But a skeptic has neither room nor need for doubt, since he is certain that true, exact or absolute knowledge is unattainable. I'm going to attempt an example:

The religious, or anyone else who thinks that things can be known, might agree with the statement:

"When there is plenty of rain and plenty of sun, the wheat grows tall, so we plant wheat in places where there is plenty of rain and plenty of sun."

This is a statement of knowledge and a related statement of action. The skeptic would view it very differently:

"We have previously observed that plenty of rain and sun coincides with tall wheat, so we will continue to plant wheat where there is plenty of rain and sun until or unless the wheat stops growing tall in such places."

The skeptic assumes that things will change. He assumes that he has not been able to observe everything.

There may be a very fine distinction here, which will look like idle semantics to many, in that many people will assume that the first statement implies the elided thought that "plenty of rain and sun are the dominant factors" – or indeed all manner of other qualifiers.

But the Greek thinkers were very careful with their words for a simple (if highly disciplined) reason. If you say "I know the sun is hot" you are assuming that your listeners realize that "I know" is a short way of saying "I have convincing reasons to suppose". But supposing one of your listeners does not realize this. You will have misled him.

In modern English we do things that would have Greek philosophers tutting into their wine and tortoise soup.

"Isn't the sun hot today, " we thoughtlessly declaim.

This statement assumes the knowledge that there are days when the sun is less hot.

The devout skeptic would be obliged to point out that:

"I am hotter out of doors today than I was yesterday, and I suppose that this is due in some way to the sun, since I am generally cooler when the sun is absent."

Nowadays we find that absurdly picky. But our ability to express ourselves clearly is built on exactly those foundations. We may have elided a lot of assumptions and qualifiers when we say "I know" . . . the problem is that many of us may not have.

To write clear prose, you need to learn to think like the devout skeptic. But to write captivating narration, you need to learn to elide all the qualifiers and assumptions. It is my theory, based on what I have observed writers and storytellers doing, that if you don't know what all the assumptions, qualifiers and implications are, then your authority as a narrator is weakened, and the reader is less captivated.


Romance — what is it? And is it for Men?

I like to both write and read romance. There, I said it. It so happens that I rarely find romance that really appeals strongly to me, and I think that this is because the archetypal romance story has a dominance possessed of the archetype of perhaps no other genre. It is an archetype that has been appropriated and adapted, culturally and literarily, mostly for and by women. To put it another way, romance is seen as a women's genre. But is it?

I've written before on the meaning of the word erotica, but it was only once I started thinking about romance that I really found a definition of all three words that applies most of the time. This is what I suggest:

romance (in any context): a story about intimate human relationships that ends positively
erotica: stories or other materials intended to stimulate, titillate or excite which have (or are intended to have) this effect on all genders and sexual orientations
pornography: stories or other materials intended to provide sexual stimulation to a single gender of a single sexual orientation

Erotica is in its intent inclusive; porn is in its intent exclusive. Romance is not about sex. But it also isn't about love. Bear* with me a moment.

Romance is about a story. Like many stories, perhaps more than many, it is instantly familiar; it is composed of recognizable patterns and structures – situations, events, characters. Writing this paragraph I made three abortive attempts to outline an archetypal romance but it got too complex, and besides, it isn't necessary. You know when a story is a romance.

It is (is it? it seems to be) commonly thought in our culture that romance stories are a sort of wish-fulfillment for frustrated women. But that isn't the purpose of stories, neither in the reading, the writing nor the telling. Stories are there to help us to rehearse; they are a form of learning, and, therefore, a form of play**. And if such stories are about men and women surely they are for men and women?

The feminist literature (you will, I hope, excuse me for not looking up the references) suggests that when stories of romance are written for women, it is with the purpose of teaching them their role in a relationship. Certainly a great deal of C20 romance reinforces the idea that women should allow themselves to be passively defined and created by men. One thinks of the iconic image of the man taking off the woman's glasses before kissing her.

But this is one of those things that I think authors should be aware of: you can't just sit down and write a nice story about two people falling in love without someone deconstructing it as a treatise on gender politics. Which is rather why I want to put out the call for more romance for men.

Our culture applies romance differently, painfully unequally, to men and women. When we call a woman romantic, we mean to say that she believes in a sort of destiny of love; that one day her prince will come; that if she finds the right man for her they will live in loving bliss forever. When we call a man romantic, we mean to say that he is skilled in satisfying a woman's desire for romance. ***

This is a disservice to both women and men. I believe that someone who is romantic is someone who desires and enjoys romantic stories, and who wants to live them, and to share the creation of a romantic experience. To some extent, this agrees with the crude definition of the preceding paragraph, though without the passive/active gender stereotype. But I think it's a lot more.

Romance is an act of mutual creation, of complicity, in what two people believe an expression of their shared sentiment should be. Romance is a kind of shared definition of love between a couple.

I'm not ashamed to call myself romantic. However I think any man should be so ashamed if what he, and those around him, understand by this is that he is skilled in the art of manipulating women's desire for romance. When I call myself romantic I am declaring my own desire for romance as a shared experience.

Finally, this shared experience, this ritual, this theater is so intensely human that it can, it must and it does entirely transcend such petty distinctions as age, race, sex and gender preference. Romance is about two people making something together. Regardless of who or what the protagonists are, I will enjoy reading it because it is romantic.

* as in carry, not as in teddy
** as in recess, not as in Shakespeare
*** I read a story where the main protagonist, a young gay man, described his first experience of sex as: "I wanted romance, he just wanted sex"; it seems to presuppose that we can apply romance as a female gender stereotype safely to a gay man. But this is just as wrongheaded as the way it is applied to women.



Exposition is a dirty word. Editors pull sour faces; readers wander off in disgust. Even your mum says you could have used a bit more action.

I am forcing myself to wonder, though, whether exposition might not, like cholesterol, come in good and bad flavours.

Let's begin at the beginning:

My great hero, Doug Harper, has very little to say on the subject of the origins of this simple workhorse word:

late 14c., "explanation, narration," from O.Fr. esposicion (12c.), from L. expositionem (nom. expositio) "a setting or showing forth," noun of action from pp. stem of exponere (see expound). The meaning "public display" is first recorded 1851 in reference to the Crystal Palace Exposition in London. Abbreviation Expo is first recorded 1963, in reference to planning for the world's fair held in Montreal in 1967.

Wiktionary's #6 definition is the one we're interested in:

6. (writing) An opening section in fiction, including novel, play, and movie, by which background information about the characters, events, or setting is conveyed.

Merriam-Webster Online doesn't give a definition relating directly to fiction writing, but does include the following example of usage:

This is not an easy book, and the reader may find the layers of detail challenging. There are long expositions of the knotty tangles of monarchical lineage, and the necessary chronicle of historical events occasionally consumes the novel's narrative drive. —Lucy Lethbridge, Commonweal, 23 Oct. 2009

Urban Dictionary has only one definition, so get over there you writers and add some more! The illustrative example is, in my opinion, very telling of the low status that this word has acquired in certain contexts:

Dialogue that gives the audience the background of the characters and the present situation.

Writing or speech intended to convey information or to explain, an explanation.

[e.g.] Vegeta provided exposition about his home planet in a flashback.

(Geek points for those who can identify the example.)

Ernest Gowers in complete plain words uses the word just once. His usage is apposite, if obliquely, but I think it serves to illustrate the problems of exposition without invective:

Those who like showy words are given to overworking metaphors. I have already referred to the usefulness and attractiveness of metaphors. They enable a writer to convey briefly and vividly ideas that might otherwise need tedious exposition. 

The adjective that he chuses is perhaps no surprise.

We think of exposition as a means of getting necessary information across to the reader, or a  means of moving the plot forward without having to provide detailed description of the action, or as a means of moving forwards rapidly in time.

These all seem to be valid uses. So when does exposition become an abuse? Regular readers of my blog will know that I like to use the Aristotelian Unities as a rule of thumb. Exposition frequently violates all three (sometimes at the same time). I take this not as a crime of itself, but as a warning sign that something else may be amiss.

If you find that, in order to get to the next point in the story without losing the reader, you need to get across a whole stack of background information via rapid (or tedious) exposition, this is a good sign that something has gone astray in your narration earlier on. There are two common mistakes in narration that I associate with this. If you are a plot opportunist—you develop and/or alter the plot while you are writing as you have new ideas—then you may well find that a new twist you thought of needs some additional explanation or background. The mistake is to deal with that immediately. If there are more details to add, they should be spread liberally through the preceding and following chapters. It is also a common mistake to suppose that the reader needs to know everything in order to understand. Readers can manage amazingly well on a dearth of information. As you become more skillful, so you will give more satisfaction to your reader all the while giving him less information. Readers don't need maps. Also, take note of Ernest Gowers' comment above; you can get a whole lot of information across with a well chosen metaphor.

If you find that you need to give a lot more information to keep the reader in the picture, that's fair enough. When Johnny runs away to became a soldier, he has various adventures before he even takes the shilling; but at some point a whole army has to be mobilized, and it seems fair to me that in order for some important event to have its proper context, the reader ought to know about the movements of the whole army. You encounter two issues in this kind of situation, those of scale and those of grain. Scale issues occur when a change in the scope of the narrative comes suddenly – we go from Johnny and his fellow recruits to several armies thousands strong. Grain issues arise from a conflict between the amount of detail needed and the amount possible to give. On this I refer you back to my comment on the amount of detail readers can get by on. Ways to deal with issues of scale are: change scales gradually–maybe as Johnny rises through the ranks; use interludes–devote a separate chapter or series of chapters to large scale events; change POV–switch to a broader point of view like an omniscient narrator or just use a less intimate viewpoint.

A lot of the stories I edit break down because the author feels that at some stage in the story, "time passes". There can be all sorts of strong justifications for this. Supposing two major story events are the young couple conceiving their child and its birth – but nothing momentous occurs between the two events. Time will have to be moved forward somehow. This isn't always easy to accomplish, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that you should never do it. It all depends on the pace of the narration before and after the time shift. If your preceding chapters have been dealing with several weeks at a time, then a chapter that glosses over nine months will probably pass unnoticed. If, however, each chapter is a couple of days, and in chapter 4 there is a paragraph in which nine months pass without incident, then you have a problem. It becomes more an issue of pacing than of exposition per se: the exposition is a symptom of poor pacing.

In Summary

What I am begging to think is that exposition is not a defect in itself. When exposition seems wrong is when the narrative jumps from action to exposition, from show to tell, in a sudden, clunky or uncomfortable way. And this is indicative of a larger problem: not that there is too much exposition, but that exposition is being used to patch a jittery narrative. If you find people are complaining about exposition, it's time to look at how you tell the story, how you structure it.