From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)
The fifth of a ten-part series.
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
You and I are sitting at a bar, having a beer, and I tell you about an incident that occurred last week, while driving home from work: At a stop light, in the car next to me, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years. Then, pointing out a little irony, I add that just yesterday I had thought of him and wondered what he’s up to these days.
You frown and say, yesterday? I’m confused. I don’t see the irony if you saw him a week ago. Don’t you mean you thought about him the day before you saw him at the stoplight? I do see the irony in that.
And I look at you as if you’re a dunce. Of course that’s what I meant.
Sounds silly, yes? It would be silly except that I see this type of thing regularly in manuscripts that I edit. When you employ present-tense terms in past-tense narrative mode—now, today, yesterday, last night, tomorrow, ago—you can confuse and stop the reader.
If you as the author/narrator write “yesterday,” to a reader that is the day preceding today; i.e., July 11, 2016, or the day before whatever the current date happens to be. It’s the reader’s yesterday. That’s all it can mean. Otherwise, the word is meaningless.
Clarity, not confusion.
Why? Because even though your story may be set in medieval Scotland, in essence, you as the author/narrator are seated beside the reader, telling a story of events that occurred hundreds of years ago, not “yesterday.”
How do you fix this? Use “a day earlier” or “the preceding day” or “the day before.” This concept applies to the other present-tense words as well.
Examples, narrative mode:
- incorrect: Today she felt she had more to think about than ever before.
- correct: That day she felt she had more to think about than ever before.
- correct: For the first time she felt she had more to think about than ever before.
- incorrect: Sometime tonight he would be in a bed with a woman.
- correct: Sometime that night he would be in a bed with a woman.
- incorrect: Margaret wondered if it had anything to do with the messenger who had arrived at the house yesterday.
- correct: Margaret wondered if it had anything to do with the messenger who had arrived at the house the day before.
- incorrect: Tomorrow they would begin the climb into the mountains.
- correct: The next day they would begin the climb into the mountains.
Caveat: This applies to narrative mode, not to a character speaking or a character’s internal thought. When a character speaks and says “yesterday,” that is his or her yesterday, not the reader’s. So, in that context it is appropriate to use.
- correct: Shack looked at his partner and said, “Tomorrow we will begin the climb into the mountains.”
A past-tense narrator can’t use the word
“yesterday” unless he’s using it in dialogue.
Beware of the use of “now”—save it for the few (if any) times it’s needed for clarity.
“Now” is a present-tense word, but I see it used in a past-tense context—“now” means the present, at this moment—not the past, in which case you would say “then” or “at that moment” or “at that point” or “at that time.” (But please do not say “at that point in time.”)
Yeah, I know now has a long history, mostly notably among historians. Do you rely on historians for history or grammar? Also, by deleting it, it’s one more way you can tighten up your writing and polish your prose—and not annoy your readers with extraneous clutter.
Don’t believe me? Check it out. See the “better” examples below. Then do a search of your manuscript for “now” and in every instance remove it to see if it makes any difference. In most cases, it won’t. Dialogue may be excepted.
- incorrect: Blood now dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
- correct: Blood then dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
- correct: At that moment, blood dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
- better (keep it simple): Blood dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
- incorrect: Now he figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
- correct: Then he figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
- correct: At the time he figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
- better (keep it simple): He figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
References & Resources:
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Time and Tense ~ Past-Tense Narrators
- Resources for Writers, Editors, and Indie Publishers
#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
Still to come:
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves