Writer's toolkit

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Welcome to the Dead Poets Society. If you teach English literature, you'll be aware of the way writers speak from the grave - grammatically at least.

We say "Shakespeare says", not "Shakespeare said". Here's a random example from the internet:

"In the first quatrain Shakespeare says that your youth will be worthless."

Equally oddly, the characters in his play do things:

"The conspirators arrive with their cloaks pulled to cover their faces."

It's not just Shakespeare, of course, nor just writers. We give the same strange treatment to all authorities from the past, be they politicians like Karl Marx:

"Karl Marx says that failing to criticise the really bad guys is counterproductive."

or philosophers like Groucho Marx:

"Groucho Marx says, 'Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.'"

What is going on? These acts of verbal creation obviously happened in the past, and yet we use the present tense for them. Why not "Shakespeare said ..."? At least that would be more honest than pretending he's still around.

We found the answer at http:people.whitman.eduhashimiytense.htm. "The rule is to use present tense when dealing with literature or when dealing with ideas other people have said. That's a standard English Department rule." So that's it - it's just a convention for the English department. If you discuss Shakespeare in history, you use the past tense; but in the English department you use the present tense.

We're not trying to knock the convention. It does make a great deal of sense to use the present tense for literature precisely because books are permanent. The story of Julius Caesar is always with us, so it takes on the status of an "eternal truth" such as "Oil floats on water". The fact that the events took place 2,000 years ago is less important.

On the other hand, the convention isn't just a matter of common sense, so children have to learn it. This is one of the things they learn during KS3, and some don't get there on their own. They treat a Shakespeare play as a story about the past, and apply the ordinary past tense - "Juliet was very upset". Very sensible, but meanwhile those from bookish backgrounds have picked up the convention for the literary present. This looks to us like one of those areas of grammar where direct instruction is helpful. Even better, it could be interesting. What effect does this choice of tense have? And is it really so different from ordinary speech? Just think of the odd present tense in examples like these:

"Your mother tells me that you've been unwell."

"I hear that we're getting new neighbours."

As so often, the most interesting bits of grammar are those we take most for granted.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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