Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

by Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editing

“Does anybody really care?” is the next line of the classic rock song by Chicago. I do. Maybe it is because I have a history degree in addition to being an editor. This means I am fated to have an obsession with details about writing and that I also get annoyed about inaccuracies in showing the passage of time.

Once a month my local newspaper—which will remain nameless because I don’t think this odd twisting of the order of events is their error exclusively—mentions the number of people seeking unemployment benefits and the new unemployment rate. This is how they phrased it in early March: “The February unemployment rate is expected to rise to 7.9 percent.” To my mind, it should read “is expected to have risen to 7.9 percent.” Sometimes rather than moving the present to the past, they go even farther and make the past into the future, saying things like, “The February unemployment rate will be higher than in January.” This February is in the past, so how can its unemployment rate be in the future? (To NPR’s credit, they used the past tense—“the rate did go down”—in the same context.)

Authors sometimes fall victim to other variants of this odd thinking about time. It makes a certain sense to use the present tense (the here and now) for describing the narrative of a story (Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and realizes that he hasn’t missed the holiday after all.). It also makes sense to use the present tense for theories that reflect current thinking (Darwin’s theory of evolution holds that humans are descended from other life-forms.).  Where authors can go off track is when they extrapolate from this approach and begin to use the present tense for everything about Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin. We can find the men writing and acting decades after their deaths.

In the 1960s, French avant-garde filmmakers and writers, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean-Luc Goddard, experimented with the narrative form. The audience was expected to follow the action forward and backward, eventually learning what occurred in the plot. Similarly, Anglo-Indian writer Rumer Godden sprinkled her excellent prose with verb phrases like “as John was to have said later.” But let’s not put our readers of academic nonfiction—or even the daily paper!—through this exercise. Let’s proceed with time as it flows in real life: from past to present to the great unknown of the future.

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