Verb Tense in First Person

A post at Kill Zone Blog focuses on a topic I’ve mentioned pretty often (it seems to me) — the use of verb tenses in first person narrative.

They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself—especially around midterms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer—but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

Did you see how the author switched from past tense to present so the character can move from telling the events of the story to offering a personal opinion? It’s as if the character wants to share a little detail with the reader, so he turns directly to the audience and hands out some extra information. This ability to offer side comments in the character’s voice seems to me to be unique in first person, and it shows an aspect of the character that may not work if the author stays with past tense.

The passage is from The Catcher in the Rye, and what I want to point out here is that (a) Yes, the narrator is offering an opinion, but also (b) the statements that are in present tense are the ones that are about a feature of the world right this minute in story-present, while the statements that are in past tense are story. Well, backstory, but that’s story in this particular book.

I don’t think of this as the protagonist offering a personal comment to the reader. I think of this as the author making it clear that something is true right this second in story-present; it’s not just something that might have been true in the past. That’s what I think is crucial here. Everything is in the protagonist’s voice. Everything is filtered through the protagonist’s perspective. Nothing is really an aside to the reader.

If there really were an aside directed to the reader, it would look like this:

They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself—especially around midterms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer—but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. I’m telling you, it has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

If the author really wants to break the fourth wall, then the fourth wall gets broken, o Best Beloved, and you can’t miss it. I don’t think Holden Caulfield is addressing the reader exactly. I think you don’t need to address the reader in order to provide opinions and comments in first person.

Regardless, this is why I’m on record as saying, multiple times, that verb tenses are objectively harder to manage in first person than third. Which is not a reason to avoid first! But it’s something to be aware of. The linked post adds,

When I was working on my first-person novels, I didn’t realize I was using exactly this technique, but someone with editing experience reviewed some of my work and told me the tense had to agree all the way through each scene…

And this is dangerous advice if the author thinks it’s true. It would be true in other kinds of stories or in English Comp essays, but in first person stories it is emphatically not true, and when the author gets this wrong — or worse, “corrects” verb tenses because of bad advice — that’s disastrous.

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4 thoughts on “Verb Tense in First Person”

  1. First-person narration should sound like the person narrating it. It helps if there is an actual place, reason, and audience involved.

  2. I appreciated that the OP went looking for examples in literature, found them, and then convinced her friend that the technique is valid. (Also, one of those examples is from Coyote Sunrise, and if it’s not on your TBR, let me recommend it to you now. It’s not my typical reading, but I enjoyed the character relationships so much.)

    So I went looking to see if there’s a name for the use of present tense in a past-tense narration when describing something that is true of the world or true at story-present, and I don’t know that there is one. Which is curious to me. I did find a lot about different tenses ( and moods / aspects) that I either didn’t know before or had forgotten. Possibly the closest to this use-case: the gnomic aspect. Which I definitely hadn’t heard of before. Where are my middle-school grammar books?

  3. Picking up a sample now, Mona!

    I don’t remember what the gnomic aspect is.

    Used to describe an aspect, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the flow of time to any particular conception (for example, the conceptions of time as continuous, habitual, perfective, etc.). Used to describe a mood, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the expression of words to the speaker’s attitude toward them (e.g. as indicative, subjunctive, potential, etc.). Used to describe a tense, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting action, in particular, to the past, present, or future. Examples of the gnomic include such generic statements as: “birds fly”; “sugar is sweet”; and “a mother can always tell”.[note 1][1][2] If, as an aspect, it does take temporality into consideration, it may be called the empiric perfect aspect. Generally, though, it is one example of imperfective aspect, which does not view an event as a single entity viewed only as a whole, but instead specifies something about its internal temporal structure.

    Okay, I think that sounds related, at least.

  4. Yeah, at least the part about “not limiting the flow of time” and “such generic statements as: “birds fly”; “sugar is sweet” […]” Things that are true regardless of *when* the character or narrator is.

    I also learned about the historical present tense, which is not related, but cool that it’s so recognizable that it has a name.

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