Listening to Your Ear

It’s not uncommon to be told to use your ear when we’re in doubt about something we’ve written. That well-meaning advice, though, can be risky, because our ear is really much too sophisticated an instrument for deciding the rights and wrongs of grammatical choices. At the level of basic rules, our ear is only as good as the people we listen to.

I had occasion the other day to write a sentence similar in structure to this one, and I had to pause to think about the tense of the verb in the second clause: It had been a long time since I spoke to him. My ear really wanted me to write since I had spoken to him, but before listening to that little voice inside my head, I had to ask it just why that suggestion might be correct. And that, really, is the point worth making here. Grammatical decisions have reasons behind them. The rules of an art—and writing is very much an art—are not pronouncements but controlling principles, controlling in the good sense that anything we do must have a limit; otherwise it might become something we don’t want to do.

The sentence I drafted has two clauses, it had been and since I spoke. The first clause is in the past perfect tense, and it stands as the independent clause of the sentence. The past perfect tense points to a time before another time in the past, and that is of material issue here as we will see. The second clause in my sentence is in the simple past tense, and that clause is subordinate because it begins with the subordinating conjunction since. When the conjunction since begins a clause of time (it can also introduce a clause of cause), it is designating a time subsequent to the other time mentioned in the sentence: the time at which I spoke to him was after the long time that had passed before that. Both events are past in relation to the time of writing the sentence, but the long period of time that had been is further in the past than the time when I spoke to him.

The relation of tenses between the two clauses, what grammar calls the sequence of tenses, explains why my ear was suggesting bad advice. Had I written it had been a long time since I had spoken to him, putting both clauses in the past perfect tense, the advancing force of the conjunction since would have been stopped in its tracks, because since, as we’ve seen, introduces a clause which points to a past time subsequent to, or following on, another past time. The past is not just a monolithic block of things that happened. Past events are arrayed in our memory just as future events are set out in our imagination. The mind that produces expository prose, the kind of language we read most of the time (and the kind of language very different from poetry) imposes what the philosophers call the categories of space and time. There is a yesterday, a today, and a tomorrow to our everyday mind, and those segments of time apply not only to the present moment, but relatively to the past as well. The past perfect is more past than the simple past. (And that is why some grammar books name the past perfect the pluperfect, the plu deriving from the Latin plus meaning more, just as we use the word in arithmetic: 2 + 2, or 2 more 2.)

Making careful rational distinctions like these is not within the ear’s bailiwick. We can and should use our ear to alert us as we write, but when a doubt arises, we then have to think through the grammar and logic to understand the principles that pertain. So where, then, is the ear’s proper domain? In matters of rhetoric, of style, of the subtle hints that produce just the effect we want a sentence to achieve. The ear takes us properly beyond the logic of time and space to intimate the realities that fall between the words. Grammar has its eye on the rules, but rhetoric has its ear on feeling and intent. And that tension is just why we can speak of the art of writing.


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