Monday, August 31, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Don't Let Summaries Make You Tense

Picture this. We're in Boston. It's a hot, muggy night, and all you want is a frothy brew to quench your thirst. You sit down at your favorite bar (pronounced bahr please), take in a Red Sox game, and meet a nice, recently graduated English major. Now here's a problem. What to discuss with someone you just met who has spent the last four years studying literature? Why the largest, most impressive book you've read of course!

So, you pull it out. Your crowning achievement. "I've read A Tale of Two Cities you know."

Now, inevitably, this nice English major may expect more information. She may even ask you summarize! Ack! What to do? What to include? Are those darn Yankees winning? Most importantly, what tense to use?

Glad you asked.

When summarizing a drama, you should always use the present tense. For a poem, story, or novel, it is advisable to stick to the present as well. If you do so, it is much more likely your listener will remain engaged. Remember, there is a Red Sox game on. However, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style notes, "you may use the past if it seems more natural to do so." Don't be concerned when you come across an antecedent action when using the present tense. In this case, simply express such action using the perfect; "if in the past, by the past perfect."

Above all else, stick to your guns (and your tenses). If you've begun your summary in the present tense, stay with it! After all, "shifting from one tense to another gives the appearance of uncertainty and irresolution." We can't have that, now can we? Dickens is not for the faint of heart!

This may come in especially handy if that nice English major asks for a critical essay on your favorite book. Hey, you never know. However, Strunk and White warn not to fall into summary too often. Instead, consider using evidence that adds to an "orderly discussion."

You could also just go back to watching the game. Apparently, Jacoby Ellsbury is quite a hunk, and that is hard to compete with.

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