Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thinking About Grammar



I’m working on copy edits for MAHU BLOOD, and a couple of things keep coming up that are challenging some of my own ideas.
The first concerns mixing past and present tense. As an English teacher, I try to hammer into my students the need to stay in one tense, usually the past tense, in their writing. I try to do that myself. But my copy editors don’t seem to agree.
I understand their point of view. If something is still true, regardless of the time of the book, they think it should be in present tense. A lot of times that comes up in my definition of Hawaiian words. For example, as the first person narrator, I might write “I knew that ohana meant family.”
The copy editor changes that to “I knew that ohana means family.”
That just sounds wrong—mixing past and present in one sentence. Easy fix; remove the words “I knew that.” New sentence reads “Ohana means family.” But it’s still a present-tense sentence in the middle of a book written primarily in the past tense.
Rather than argue, I usually just go along with the copy editor’s changes. But every time it do, it rings a little bell in the back of my head.
My hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, has an undergraduate degree in English. I gave him that background deliberately, so that his voice would be articulate and sound educated. He can drop in an occasional reference to English literature-- in MAHU BLOOD he sees an older woman surrounded by knitting, and calls her Madame Defarge. His partner, Ray Donne, is a Philly cop who has a college degree, though not in English. He asks Kimo how he knows the woman and Kimo says, “It’s a long story. Called A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.” Ray just shakes his head and says, “English major.”
So Kimo knows his grammar, but I don’t expect him to be pedantic. Will he always use “whom” properly? Will he say, “I spoke to this guy who I was able to get hold of?” Or would he say “Whom I was able to get hold of?”
He’d certainly say “A guy like me,” rather than “A guy like I am.” But where do you draw the line?
This is why English teachers (and writers) go prematurely gray.

1 comment:

Ripley said...

OK, so as an old English teacher w/ PhD and writer, I can't resist. There's such a thing as the "historic present" which we used as a matter of course in newspaper writing (I'm an old copy editor as well). Even though it sounded like present, it was about past events. That doesn't help with mixing tenses, since you usually leave everything in that.

I suspect your copy editors' thinking is whether something is still true now--in other words, is timeless. Knowledge, for example, is something you always have--unless you're amnesiac, and then you might have known something that you don't know now. Putting current knowledge in the past would suggest you don't still know it. Anyway, careful mixing can open up more subtle distinctions.