Monday, August 11, 2014

Grammar Solves All--Perfectly

Quick note: due to technical difficulties, Keith could not post last week.  To the best of my knowledge, everything is totally normal now.  Normal.

Recently, some writer friends were discussing flashback transitions.  Despite a lengthy discussion about thematic and topical transitions, I longed for someone to bring up a simple solution: grammar.  No one did, and as I'm likely to do in these discussions, I listened.

I'm going to offer a simple solution here.

Keith and I spoke about the perfect tense in the past, and my teasing permeated past posts.  Allow me to geek out a bit and expand:

Perfect tense = have + past participle (This tense can get wonderfully complicated, but I'll keep it short here).

Traditionally, this is a natural tense for native English speakers to use.  The typical use for this tense (I will speak about a special use for time transitions in a moment) is to refer to an action that has happened before a specific event.

For example, for the past perfect, you might say, "Before I tried Belgium wheat, I had thought all beer tasted the same."  The event took place in the past, and the past perfect reflects that the action took place in the past, before the past event occurred.

Perfect tense can include progressive and future forms: "By the time I complete writing this post, I will not have been thinking about grammar nearly enough to satisfy my love of semantics."  The verb phrase will not have been thinking demonstrates a future, progressive perfect tense.

Fun, right?

Of course, this is a very brief introduction to the perfect tense, but I'm going to stop here before I overwhelm.

For those of you still with me, I'm going to demonstrate a much more writerly application for the perfect tense.  When flashing back and then flashing forward in writing a scene, the rule-of-thumb for transitioning is using three perfect tense verbs before switching to the verb tense you are using (probably past tense).

Simple, yes?

When you see this in use, it is subtle and effective.

Allow me a quick example (I'm using past tense as the base verb tense, perfect is italicized):

We ate lunch at the taco stand on the corner with amazing hamburguesas that the cook piled high with salsa, ham, onions, and jalapenos.  We sat in the park, talking of the weather and other meaningless things.
It reminded me of the time when I was in Mexico.
I had walked along the jardin in the center of San Miguel de Allende, and the church in the center of town had been lit up like a circus clown.  In fact, it had been like a circus because the San Miguel film festival reverberated through the entire town.  Costumed people, live bands, projection screens, and food vendors popped up overnight.
My fond memories had distracted me from the conversation.  He had asked me what I had wanted to do later that night.
"I don't know," I said.  "Maybe go see a movie?"

If you remove the perfect tense, the change is subtle (past tense verbs in order: walked, was lit up, was like, distracted, asked, wanted).  With the perfect tense, the flashback and flashforward are clear.  Readers who have no idea what perfect tense is still understand that a shift is happening.

Love the tense.  Use it.  Use it wisely.

P.S.  I'm not a grammar Nazi.  I'm Chomskian in my grammar beliefs.  If you understand this, I'm sending you a kiss.

Now, onto some indulgent pictures from google.


  1. I did not get the Chomskian connection (until I looked him up):

    Can I still get the kiss?

  2. Chomsky rocks. Now he writes incredibly complex and detailed historical analysis.
    Love his linguistic writing. I understand them better.
    And yes, you can still get a kiss.