Mol (mollyringle) wrote,

Past v. present tense in Microsoft Word: difficulties in proofreading

I feel like I've been too quiet lately and ought to say something. Sorry about the general lack of commenting, by the way.

One of the things keeping me busy is the latest novel. It's now over 60,000 words long, and probably three-quarters done. So, naturally, now is when I've decided to stop writing in present tense, as I've been doing since the start for some unknown reason, and change it all to past tense like you find in normal narrative fiction. Present tense, though it nicely captures the current feel of a situation and therefore crops up frequently in short stories and poetry, often strikes people as pretentious or distracting in novels. And, really, why throw down another roadblock in my own path to publication? Having a weird plot that doesn't neatly fit any particular genre is going to make things hard enough.

So, past tense it is.

But this is not as easy as it sounds. It's a mind-numbing, long, tedious task. You can't just hit a button in Word and make it convert all present tense to past. For one thing, there is no such command. For another, you don't want all present-tense verbs changed to past. You just want the narrative verbs changed. The dialogue needs to stay as it is. So you have to search and replace on individual words, and look at each and every instance that Word turns up, and opt whether to change it or not. And that is where the massive time-consumption enters.

We all have several hundred verbs in our everyday working vocabulary, to point out just one problem. To judge from the workload so far, I apparently use most of them. To point out another problem, some verbs, in one form or another, double as other words. For instance, say you use the present-tense verb "remarks," as in "she remarks..." If you tell Word to replace all instances of "remarks" with "remarked," then you may end up with a sentence somewhere that reads, "They made several remarked." Woops. So, thanks to the 3rd person singular present-tense morpheme in English happening to take the same form as the regular plural for nouns ("-s"), you've got to watch out for the nouns and not change those. (Hmm, I think I just freaked out everyone who doesn't like linguistics.)

I'm nowhere near done with this process. I'm wondering if there's any language in which this would really be easy to fix. Maybe one in which tense was expressed by a separate particle, unconnected to the verb root, which always stood alone and never blended with the form of any other words. Yeah, dream on.

Moral of story? When you start writing a long piece of prose, be very sure which tense you want to write in, be prepared to defend your decision, and then stick with it. It's fortunate that in English we only have two tenses to choose from. Imagine the damage I might do if the imperfect were an option...
Tags: linguistics, writing

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