You have been a grate riter…

So began the message on a card my granddaughter had made to welcome me on a visit last weekend. She didn’t then go on to analyse my work or offer any criticism, constructive or otherwise, so I couldn’t really ask her to elucidate her choice of tense, but I found it an interesting one. ‘You have been’ doesn’t have the negative implications of ‘You were’. ‘You were’ means you’re no longer whatever it is, as in ‘You were a grate riter but now you’re crap’. But ‘have been’ still does give you the feeling that it needs to be qualified in some way. You expect it to be followed by ‘but’, as in ‘You have been a grate riter but you need to put some work in to reach those heights again’.

Playing with tenses is great (or grate). There’s a very active sequence in Flaubert’s Salammbô where leaders of the mercenary armies get together and one of them leaps on a table and rushes up and down exhorting the others and brandishing his sword. But the interesting thing is that Flaubert didn’t use the obvious tense which, for actions, would be the Past Historic: ‘He jumped on the table, unsheathed his sword and brandished it as he ran amongst them’ (NB this isn’t a translation, just an example of a sequence). Instead, he used the Imperfect tense. A clumsy English version would be: ‘He was jumping on the table, unsheathing his sword and brandishing it as he was running amongst them.

It has a strange effect, doesn’t it? This is a one-off event but, instead of describing it as a sequence of actions, he’s fusing them all into a sort of status, he extends them beyond the event they’re describing. Rather than convey self-contained, discrete actions, he’s creating a mood of activity.

There’s another form of the Past tense that intrigues me, too. It’s the Perfect tense – ‘I have eaten’, ‘they have gone’, and so on. What would the effect be if Flaubert had used that? ‘He has jumped on the table, unsheathed his sword and brandished it as he has run amongst them’. Again, a strange usage. It all sounds as if it’s preparation for some other definitive event or action. You can imagine it continuing; ‘… and now he stands there, ready to eat his muesli (or whatever)’.

For some bizarre reason, the Perfect seems to be the preferred tense of jockeys. When jump jockeys are interviewed about a race, they tend to say things such as, ‘He’s come up to the fence and he’s got in a bit close but he’s managed to pick up nicely’. If we were writing that in a narrative, it would be ‘He came up … got in a bit close … and managed …’ It does suit their purpose though because, rather than describe it all as something in the past that’s over and done with, it gives the description the immediacy it had for the person as he was riding the race.

And the moral of the story? If you, too, want to be a grate riter, experiment with tenses..


  1. Glad you liked it, Linda. It’s not structured as well as it should be, though, and there are so many other tenses, moods and the like which need to be included.

  2. you are a funny man. Simple present tense. You make me laugh. But I suspect that your grand-daughter, having the benefit of knowing you over time might have been in some sense writing about the entirety of your life (is she preparing for your obituary?) I read it as ‘through the course of your life you have been a grate riter’ in other words when she sees your life in all its longevity the one constant is that you ARE a grate riter- and as such think it’s deeply touching. ( I knew there was a reason one might have children – in order to have grandchildren who told one one was/had been a grate riter) Though in my case a) the rest of what goes with it and b) the fear of them NOT saying that made it not worth the effort. But yes, tenses have a lot to answer for and much to intrigue. My French is PISS POOR but it makes me laugh when (as I think) French suggests ‘it finds itself’ as a construction meaning it is. But I know I’m on really dodgy ground here so I’m going to have to have been an imprecise and non concise riter and get the hell off here. Thanks for the laugh though. Made my day.

    1. Hi Cally. Welcome and thanks for such nice words. Unfortunately, they’re based on a misconception. Rather than having a concept of ‘the entirety of my life’, my granddaughter’s mind dragonflies its way back and forth, seeking, exhausting and discarding pleasures at an alarming rate. She has no idea of the enormous pleasure it gives me that she thinks I’m a grate riter. If offered a fruit yoghurt to retract the claim she’d jump at the chance. As for preparing the obituary, I’m sure she’s canny enough to be careful not to risk compromising any potential legacy.

      And as for ‘It finds itself’ = ‘it is’ in French, there’s not room here to go on about how much better the former is. IT IS suggests an incontrovertible truth; IT FINDS ITSELF incorporates perception, judgement, the negotiability of truth, all sorts of fascinating stuff.

  3. Please, Sara, don’t kill all my illusions. At least have the charity to use the same tense which she chose so carefully – tu as été magnifique – it leaves a little leeway for hope that the halcyon days of my grateness may yet return.

  4. My daughter always speak in the past tense. “I was like” or “she was like”. We never actually hear what it was that either she or her multitudinous friends were thinking or doing, since they seem to spend their entire lives being like.

    1. Roger, the corrosive effect of that seemingly harmless word irritates the hell out of me. It goes along with rising terminals and turns even the most intelligent, articulate young people into weird, robotic creatures who feel the need to vomit up ‘like’ every few words. It’s an aberration.

  5. Lovely post! Just to be told I ever was, am, will ever be (or even could be if I tried harder) a great writer would make me smile. Please tell your granddaughter to come and have a chat with me :). I love tenses. French is the best, all that messing about in the plu-perfect and subjunctive when other languages have all but assuaged them for an easy life. Typical French, god love ’em. I’m learning Slovakian and it seems to only have three tenses from what I can gather, five at the outside (I counted up, I think French has nine in active use, if you include past historic?) and it kind of feels like cheating. I followed you through Charlotte’s blog round up and I will pop back, glad to have stumbled across your site.

    1. Thanks, Jackie, both for the comments and the visit. If you visit my granddaughter, just bring an appropriate bribe and she’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. I used to teach French, so I’m entirely with you on their many tenses and moods and the careful of rules of how and when to use them. Their lack of a continuous present (I am eating), is strange, though.

    1. Thanks Donna. Yes, if you haven’t tried messing around with tenses yet, it’s quite entertaining to see the different effects your choice creates – good, awful, funny, puzzling, and sometimes very surprising.

  6. There is a compelling point to blogging when it’s as erudite & informative as the above, Coco is averring. Perhaps the reason for their lack of a continuous present (I am eating) might be that the French are too polite to speak with their mouths full? Meanwhile I am enjoying, will continue to enjoy and subsequently will always have enjoyed (barring unforeseen circumstances) this post. Thank you Bill. And good luck with the JCB.

  7. Glad you liked the blog, Coco. Your grasp of grammatical chronology is impressive. I would, however, respectfully suggest that you revisit your national stereotypes. You used ‘French’ and ‘polite’ in the same sentence.

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