Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hesitation waltz

I was reading out a poem in the writing class.

“Maybe the workmen
knocking down the old long-house
to build upon its footprint
stopped to help… ”

I saw out of the corner of my eye the tutor make an impatient movement. However, she waited till I had finished before she pointed out that “perhaps” and “maybe” have no place in poetry.

“Every word has to count,” she said. “If something’s uncertain, dig deeper. Dig until you find out why you’re not certain – is it you or is it something else? And if so, what?”

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was beta-reading the draft of a novel (not one of mine). Every now and again I came across a phrase using “may” to imply uncertainty:

She wanted to stay, but common sense told her there may not be any news for some time

I don’t mind the construction of the sentence, but I want to put “might not” there. May is present tense, might is past. The Oxford English Dictionary (http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/may-or-might) says:

Some people insist that you should use may (present tense) when talking about a current situation and might (past tense) when talking about an event that happened in the past. …  In practice, this distinction is rarely made today and the two words are generally interchangeable:

I might go home early if I’m tired.
He may have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

With all due respect to the OED, I think this confuses the issue. The second example reads like an extract from an essay or an academic paper, in which an author’s thoughts are usually present tense. The present form, may, is acceptable in that context even though the sentence discusses events in the past. However, in fictional narrative where the commonest tense is the past (he did this, she did that), the past form of “might” is going to make more sense.

She hoped he hadn’t recognised her, because he might cause trouble.

With the tutor’s advice in mind I usually step back when I rewrite, and try to find another way of putting the same ideas without using this phrase. This first version only suggests that the main character is timid. I might (oops) rephrase it by writing more fully:

She hoped he hadn’t recognised her. He’d been violent in the past and she was afraid of him.

Getting around the need to use either may or might results in the second version which gives us a background for her anxiety. It isn't always necessary but small edits like this can prevent us jolting the reader out of their belief in what we are writing and also offer the chance to add extra depth to our story.

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