Space and Time

The kind of writing most of us undertake most of the time is called expository prose, sentences and paragraphs that are meant to convey information to the intelligence of the reader, specifically to one’s rational frame of mind. Expository language regards the world as a place made up of things. We name with a noun each thing we see, and we say with a verb how one thing affects another. Expository prose tells what happens in space and time, whether that world is actual or imaginary. It’s explanatory and realistic and coherent.

Realistic worlds include time. However the philosophers might muse on just what time is (and whether it is at all), our rational mind works in it, and we come to understand early on that there is a yesterday, a today, and a tomorrow. Time is one of the great organizing constructs of our mind; it coordinates our experience, what we do and what happens to us, and it gives us a perch to sit on to reflect and comprehend. In expository prose, time is represented first by the tense of verbs, and good writers know they have to be consistent in the use of tense in order to show clearly when one event happened in relation to another. This falls under a grammatical topic called the sequence of tenses.

To see how subtle such a sequence, or coordination, of tenses can be, let’s look at a passage from Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” a macabre little tale of utopia turned dystopia. (I quote the passage here from 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane, Bantam, 2005.) There are six verbs across these two sentences and they all work together to construct a miniature world of space and time in our mind. The lottery is about to begin:

Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, held the black box securely on the stool until Mr. Summers had stirred the papers thoroughly with his hand. Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or [had been] discarded, Mr. Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations.

The main verb of the first sentence is held, a simple past tense that tells us that the box was kept in place securely at a certain time in the past, including over a certain period of time in the past. That main clause is followed by a subordinate clause opening with the conjunction until, which means up to the time when. The verb of that subordinate clause, had stirred, is past perfect, and shows that the stirring of the papers went on before the point at which Mr. Martin and his son let go of the box. The past perfect is called a relative tense, meaning it cannot be used alone, but only in relation to another verb in the past tense, and here that’s the verb held. On a grammatical timeline, the position of the two verbs in relation to the present would look like this: ——-had stirred——-held——-the present——-the future. The farther to the left of present one goes on the timeline, the further into the past one travels.

Now no sooner do we realize that the past perfect tense can’t be used alone than we come to the second sentence of this passage, where there are no tenses but the past perfect. Curious, but not uncommon in English. The first verb of the first clause, had been forgotten, is meant to stand in relation to an implied past tense, either the simple past time of the verb held in the previous sentence, or another unstated verb assumed for the context, perhaps the time of the drawing that is being described. The next verb, discarded, is elliptical, meaning its two auxiliary verbs, had been, have for stylistic reasons been omitted; in tense, then, the verb remains past perfect, and so it too works with the implied verb in the same way as had been forgotten does.

The two verbs remaining in the second clause, had been successful and had been used, pose an interesting arrangement and point out a peculiarity of the past perfect tense. Both of these verbs are past perfect, but each could not logically be referring to the same point of time in the past, because Mr. Summers, the subject of had been successful, was someone living in an age much more recent than the one many generations ago when wood chips were still being used for such drawings. Both events are past in relation to the implied past main verb that controls all the tenses in this second sentence, but the past perfect had been used is meant to represent a time even further in the past than the past perfect had been successful. Which is to say that the verb had been used is acting as a past-past perfect, so to speak. English has no tense for time prior to the past perfect tense, and so that is the only form one can use, no matter how distant the past being referred to might be. On the grammatical timeline, it would look like this: ——-had been used——-had been successful——-(implied past tense verb)——-the present.

And if all that were not enough, a really close look at that second sentence would reveal that the verbs had been forgotten and discarded also point, in fact, to the same far distant time that had been used represents; so the only real past perfect verb in the second sentence is had been successful. It’s all quite an achievement to keep straight, and Jackson’s two sentences make up a fine set-piece that gives evidence of the incisive clarity with which the author saw this verisimilar world in her mind. Whether time ultimately exists or not, we live in it in our language, and all its many points must be kept strictly in relation to one another when the occasion requires.


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