When it falls to us to speak or write, we have before us a task it is better to understand than mistake, for putting words together requires something that listening or reading does not. When it comes our turn to compose, we are taking on the work of building a bridge between our mind and the mind of our reader; it becomes our work, not the reader’s, to do the thinking, to find the materials, the ideas, and to assemble them into sentences that will carry meaning between us. Much is involved, but there is one point it is important for the writer of prose to remember: life takes place in time and space.
Odd to say, we might think, for where else does life happen? But do ideas exist in time and space? Where are those dreams that make us laugh in the night or lunge from our bed, frightened? All of life and value and meaning is going on in our heads, as we say, but we seem to see it splayed out in front of us on the open plain of the world. And when we take our mind to say something about what is going on, we must take note of the conditions of time and space that our thinking mind imposes on all that life. The mind that writes expository prose, the language of fact and explanation that we use most often, rationalizes the world, and to rationalize means to make a ration, a portion, out of a larger whole. Prose sectionalizes the world, makes brick and boards with words and phrases, all in an effort to make an image that can bridge the divide between our mind, our place of understanding, and that place where our reader’s awareness intelligently resides. The good writer, that is to say, first thinks thoroughly for the reader.
This, for example, is the thinking behind the tenses of a verb. Not all languages have the same tenses (and some languages don’t have tense at all), but verb tense (the word tense, from French and Latin, means time or occasion or season) is the way many languages impose a rational frame on the movement and happenings of life—all to the end of understanding, of coming to see some reason in it all. We are to think of the sentences we compose, then, as little scenes, as set pieces that frame what is happening in life within the bounds, the occasion, of a certain time and space—time in verb tense and space in adverbs.
One such little scene might be this: Fortunately, I had asked for a quote from the mechanic before he began the repairs. Two events are taking place here, my asking for a quote from the mechanic and his beginning the repairs. And because in actual fact my asking what the repairs were going to cost occurred before the beginning of the work, that prior action must be set on the stage of the sentence with the past perfect tense (had asked), which English employs to depict an action that occurred in the past even earlier than another past action (began). The scenery, the background against which these two actions took place, is then rendered by the adverb fortunately to amplify the circumstances, or space, and cast a certain mood. It would not be uncommon to say I asked for a quote (the simple past tense), instead of I had asked, and in relaxed conversational speech that is just fine. But in more formal conversation, and certainly almost always in writing, the past perfect tense would be required here to convey accurately the order of events as they unfolded in time.
We can leave to our more philosophical moods the question whether time and space are out there in the world or in here in our minds, but we can be sure that they make up life as we know it in language—not our language in some rarified form, but the very language we use every day. It’s on us when we speak or write to do the thinking, to organize actors and actions and depict what did or is or will happen sequentially, and thus coherently, for those we are addressing. Without the boundaries of time and space, rational comprehension and reason are impossible, and life runs the risk of just rolling out and away misunderstood while we play through the days, as Shakespeare says, our many parts.