A “Tense” Situation

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Joel Martin’s essay on Southern representations of Native Americans is typical for historical scholarship. The research is thorough and well-documented. The analysis is succinct and insightful. The finer points of grammar, however, are often lower on the to-do list than if he were writing for publication, say, with the MLA. The issue I found in Martin’s essay is one that often occurs in academic writing, especially in historical writing. “Eighteenth-century representations had centered on border-crossing types, individuals who moved freely between Indian and non-Indian cultures.” In this sentence, Martin uses the past perfect tense.

The definition of the past perfect tense from the Purdue OWL is that “the past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the action of the past perfect is action completed in the past before another action.”

 In this particular argument, he is not stating that the representation occurred until some other event. He explains only that the “border-crosser” was an eighteenth-century representation. The correct tense is simple past, and the sentence would have read “Eighteenth-century representations centered on border-crossing types…”

                Many readers may never notice the error; it is a minor one. However, due to our study of these tenses, and my additional study of them for foreign language classes, I was momentarily confused by the above section of Martin’s essay because I expected him to argue an event that changed the “border-crossing” representation. I had to re-read the section to be sure I had not misunderstood or somehow skipped over the information. Mixing verb tenses can confuse a reader, and distract from a paper’s argument.

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