Monday, January 25, 2010

Imperfect Tense?

Happy Monday, everyone! Starting tomorrow, we'll be posting the rest of the winning stories from the Genre Wars contest. I hope you've all enjoyed our first three offerings!

Today, I wanted to ask what you all thought about writing in the imperfect tense.

What's the imperfect tense? Well, it can take on two basic forms. One is an incomplete action or coincident actions:

I was gallivanting in the ballroom when Mr. Bailey rang the bell.

The other one, and the one I'm more curious about today is its use to describe continuous actions:

I used to dangle my carrots, but then Lady Glam suggested I dangle turnips instead.

This comes up because I was at my writer's group meeting a few weeks ago when someone suggested that another writer replace a scene written in this imperfect, habitual tense with a scene that simply had the character doing the action once. Instead of "I used to dangle my carrots," the suggestion was to write "I dangled my carrots." Accuracy aside (this wasn't non-fiction), the critic's idea was that writing it as a singular event activated the action, focused it into one sharp scene whereas the original left the time in a more imperfect realm.

I started thinking about Proust. Not only did he embrace the imperfect tense, but much of the first volume of his long novel was written as these descriptions of habits, series of events that were repeated again and again. His translated first line, for example is "For a long time I would go to bed early."

Proust used the imperfect tense to explore memory, its transformations, its misrememberings, its associations. In that sense, the imperfect tense was critical. But for me, what made this tense alluring was its realness. Don't we all have those memories of activities we've done over and over again? Still, I think the reviewer in my writer's group had a point. Writing a scene as a singular event can really bring it to life.

So, what do you all think? Is there a place for the imperfect tense, even if you aren't dealing with the idea of memory? Have you used the imperfect tense and found it more powerful than, say, past tense, in certain circumstances?


  1. I'm terrible at tenses -

    that being said, I think you make a good point here. To me, "I used to dangle my carrots" implies a change and growth and makes me curious about what has been and what will be.

    on the contrary, "I dangled the carrot" implies no growth. I expect you to dangle the carrot again tomorrow.

  2. Such deep writing thoughts so early on a Monday, Davin. You're going to kill me.

    Yes, Tess, Davin just won't listen to me. Turnips Shurnips, he says. Carrots make more sense, don't they?

    As to your post, Davin, I think there's a place for both of these tenses. Changing one to the other can really make an impact, and although I didn't realize what I was doing before, I've made these changes in my own novel. I think it actually altered the characters in some instances. As Tess says above, one implies growth and the other doesn't - among other things depending on the subject and action choice.

    Now I'll look for this all over the place. I often like more direct language, but then again, it depends on the prose I'm trying to convey.

    Here's a question - what do you normally use in speech?

  3. I think the two sentences really mean two different things and the writer must decide what he/she wants to say.

    While crit groups are important, I find too many instances where they point out "rules" they've heard. Making the action "stronger" is a big fave, but if all sentences are like that, they lose their punch. Sometimes, our actions andthoughts don't come out strong; they're tentative,reflective, etc. That's reality.

  4. Unfortuantely where I come from, sentences like, "Us guys used to dangle carrots, now we don't no more," is something I grew up with. So needless to say, I am bad with tense.

    However, I generally change the flow of the sentence if it doesn't 'sound' right, whether it be perfect, or imperfect tense.

    Unless, of course, I'm writing dialogue and then, to me, anything goes.

    And yes, Davin, really, at such an early time in the morning?

  5. For those that have taken a foreign language, especially French or Spanish, they can really relate to the unknown world of tenses. There is a place for the imperfect tense, but I think reading a long scene in the tense would be almost exhausting.

    As English speakers, we tend to us the imperfect tense by accident and many people are unfamiliar with it's actual rules, let alone uses.

  6. Tenses are not my thing. I'm horrible at them. But you make a striking point about imperfect tense. I usually feel my way through. If it doesn't seem right to me, I change it. And I'm a dialogue gal. I love writing it. So much that I have to cut loads of dialogue during revisions. So as I'm cutting dialogue, I then find myself rearranging sentences changing tenses, to glue the story back together again. Great post. :-)

  7. Tess, growth is an interesting point. In the example I used, Proust, he does talk a lot about growth and the passage of time. Interesting.

    Michelle, in answer to your last question, I think that depends on the facts, since I usually don't talk in fiction. But, I think the imperfect tense and the past tense, for example, do describe two different things. So, meaningwise, they aren't interchangeable, but in terms of fiction, where we are able to change facts, it's more adjustable.

    Susiej, I agree that they mean two different things. Definitely. That's a good point you bring up about contrast. Having the imperfect tense allows you to sharpen other scenes when you want to.

    I'll continue to ignore the complaints about Monday morning discussions. We've been offering up great stories for a few days, can't we get technical for a bit? :)

    Anne, Voice is a great example of when the imperfect tense can be a great choice. I've been thinking about voice more and more in my writing lately.

    Jonathan, That's an interesting point. And, I do realize that the first time I felt like I really understood the imperfect tense was in my high school Spanish classes. I think American English speakers often get sloppy with language.

    Robyn, I always get a little jealous when you talk about your dialog. Dialog has always been tough for me, probably because I'm surrounded by silent people. I hope your intuitive approach to tenses works! I try to be intuitive for a lot of things, but tense is something I have to analyze.

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  9. While I can see what you're saying Davin, sometimes having imperfect tense is appropriate. For example, if it's a first person narrative, using imperfect tense might be completely appropriate for that particular character. Often enough we speak the same way we think, and if the character thinks in imperfect tense, they would use it in both dialog and "internal dialog". Generally though, I agree that getting rid of this type of thing will improve the quality of the writing.

  10. (Take Two)
    The imperfect tense exists for a reason. "I used to dangle carrots" is not the same as "I dangled carrots."

    In my very humble opinion, a lot of the current advice for creating immediacy and strong action comes at the expense of a bigger palette of language. When I read books written longer than say twenty or thirty years ago, or books written from across the pond, where the culture values directness a little less than we do over here in the States, I find that I enjoy the space around the words.

    That said, using the imperfect tense too much can easily cause fatigue.

    Very humble and subjective opinion.

  11. Eric, for the record, I also agree with using the imperfect tense. I've been playing with it a lot actually. Your point about voice is a good one, and more and more I've even had speakers using improper English and bad grammar, because I think it's amusing.

    Yat-Yee, I love what you say about the palette of language! That's a wonderful thought and I definitely agree.

  12. I think using imperfect tense once in a while can help shed light on a character's personality - whether it's a used as a memory or simply the voice of your protagonist/antagonist, ect. Should it be done every other paragraph? No. But it can break up the monotony of a story, and explain something about that particular character in a more interesting way.

  13. There is a right time and a right place for everything. I think the writer should keep in mind the intent behind the words, i.e. what thought are you trying to convey? That will help drive word choice. The words can then be fine-tuned to make sure the cadence flows with the surrounding passages.

    I used to dangle my carrots has a direct implication that the carrots are no longer dangled.

    I dangled my carrots implies that carrots were dangled in the past, and leaves open the potential for future carrot dangling.

    The writer must determine the fate of the carrots, and script the sentence accordingly. Minor changes in wording can have major impacts on meaning.

  14. I agree with all the "it depends" answers, and I think Rick's spot-on about minor changes and major impacts. If we all obeyed arbitrary rules like "no passive voice EVER" or "no imperfect tense EVER," then certain kinds of writing would be impossible and that, you know, would be scarily Orwellian. I used to think that 1984 was satire.

  15. I firmly believe in the uses of the imperfect tense. Admittedly, my time studying French had a lot to do with the realization of its uses, but I think it hold value in English as well.

    In one song I love, the MC starts out saying, "tous ce que je souhaitais" (All that I wanted, in the imperfect) and ends saying, "tous ce que j'ai toujours souhaite" (all that I wanted, plain past tense). The use of the imperfect shows the MC's growth.

  16. When I want to connote an ongoing action, I happily use the imperfect tense. Too much of it does suck energy from prose, but when I want it, I want it. In the main, I'd say that simple past is punchier, but sometimes I just don't want to punch. A lighttouch works better now and then.

  17. The perfect place for imperfect tense is in dialog.

  18. I use the imperfect tense sometimes although I dont' consciously think of it in specific terms. I think it just depends on what I'm trying to communicate. I was just playing around with a scene in my WIP where the MC uses the imperfect tense where he is doing a limited activity but is doing it over and over in the short term.

    I think whether you use it on not depends on both voice and the situation.

  19. coffeelvnmom, good point about character. Yes, it does say something more about a character to know her/his habits rather than just singular events!

    Rick, I agree with you that the minor changes can have a big impact. I'd say that the tense doesn't exactly trap future events as you suggest here, though. But, I get your point.

    Mr. Bailey, yes, of course! And, I don't really like to think about how close we are to having 1984 become a reality.

    Dominique, that's a beautiful example. As a tangent, there's a lovely line in one of Joni Mitchell's songs where she suggests only talking in present tenses. I've always loved that.

    Simon, I've been playing around with that a lot lately. That light touch. This is the topic of another post, but the light touch concept is very intriguing to me.

    Southpaw, thanks for the comment! I guess you and others feel that we all talk in the imperfect a lot.

    Paul, thanks for your thoughts. Something several of you have mentioned is the consideration of voice when deciding on tenses. That's very interesting to me and something I wouldn't have come up with on my own. Thanks!

  20. I think it depends on the sentence, and the context. You example of "used to dangle" and the the "now I" makes perfect sense. It didn't flow to me when you just ended the sentence. It felt half finished.

    There've been times when I'm critting and come across a sentence like that, and the first thing I do is say "you used past and present tense". But even while I'm thinking it, I know it's ok, and I usually cross off the comment because, though I didn't know what it was called, the imperfect tense seems the way real people talk and think.

    I'm sure I do the same in my own writing; I just don't notice it because it flows well. So for myself - either writing or critting - as long as it flows well and the rest of the paragraph doesn't inadvertantly switch tense, then I'd leave it in.


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  22. The real problem with imperfect tenses is the conditional, which works its way into many first drafts and, if left there, truly weakens the work. Too often I see writers describing what their characters "would" do instead of what they DO do. This is the reasoning behind the advice to write as directly as possible.

    And the alternate face of that is rhythm. It's important to be aware of when you need a variety of verb forms for rhythm.

    If you're using "used to" to convey change, it matters whether or not you follow up with the perfect in a reasonable space, thereby making your point about the change (meaning: deliberately delineating that space with these brackets of the imperfect and perfect tenses). Just leaving it hanging without delineation can, certainly, turn out to be sloppy writing.

    As with all techniques, the point is deliberate use. Did you use the imperfect on purpose? Or did it just kinda show up there?



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