Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm writing a short story, and I'm unsure about the right tense to use. The first two sentences are:

I knew Mr. Brown for exactly 15 minutes. He had met me at the entrance and was now accompanying me to the meeting.

I'm not sure about the tense in the first sentence. Normally I'd write:

I had known Mr. Brown for ...

However, then the first and the second sentence would use the same tense, which also looks weird. What is the right tense to use?

share|improve this question
    
I would use the second version, and remove the "had" from the second sentence. That is, if you aren't trying to imply that he died or otherwise disappeared forever within 15 minutes of the meeting. –  AlbeyAmakiir Nov 11 '12 at 21:59

5 Answers 5

If I were reading a story that began

I knew Mr. Brown for exactly 15 minutes. He had met me at the entrance and was now accompanying me to the meeting.

I would expect the following things of the story:

  1. Mr. Brown would die 15 minutes after he had met First Person Narrator.
  2. FPN's second sentence would begin a narration of the circumstances of his death.

(1) comes from the use of past knew in the first sentence; one cannot use the present perfect construction with a dead subject or object, so using the simple past is a tipoff that they're dead.

And the time lapse is only 15 minutes, well within the narrative scope of the story, whence (2).

There's a (3), as well, but it's just a flag to watch for while reading -- Mr. Brown's death may be a red herring, and merely a way into a different story, rather than being the point of this story.

I don't know whether that helps, or not.

share|improve this answer
    
haha I like your expectations! I knew there was something amiss (still do know, actually). The fact of the matter is you can't really talk about "knowing" someone for 15 minutes unless there's something really odd preventing you from knowing him for at least a bit longer. The mere fact of him leaving probably isn't enough - unless he upped and died, you'd probably still think you "knew" him 16 minutes after you first met. –  FumbleFingers Nov 11 '12 at 17:39

In practice native speakers probably wouldn't use the word knew that way in such a context.

It's fine to say something like "I knew him back in the 80s when we were at college together", because the implication is you "knew" him for years (you might or might not still know him).

But for a period as short as 15 minutes, it really doesn't make a lot of sense. Firstly because that's barely enough time to "get to know" someone. Secondly, if we allow that you could do so, and if a few minutes later someone asked "Do you know Mr. Brown?" you'd presumably answer "Yes". Because you still know him, even if he's just left (unless, as John Lawler suggests, he just died :).

OP's "I had known Mr. Brown for exactly 15 minutes." is just about credible, but it seems a bit "dated/formal/literary" to me. More natural phrasing would be something like...

"I had only known Mr. Brown for 15 minutes."

Personally, I'd prefer met rather than known, for the reason given above. But that just creates more problems when OP uses the same verb with a slightly different sense in the next sentence.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 Lovely analysis. –  Irene Nov 11 '12 at 17:27

What you might want is:

I had known Mr. Brown for exactly 15 minutes. He met me at the entrance and was now accompanying me to the meeting.

However, much will depend on the timeframe of the story. You shouldn't avoid making the second sentence begin He had met me . . . if that accurately represents the sequence of events.

share|improve this answer
    
If the entrance is the first place you ever met Mr. Brown, I would think you should match the tenses, and so use "I had known" and "He had met me". –  Peter Shor Nov 11 '12 at 23:35

Knew is the perfect tense, used only when something is completed: in this context you could say 'I knew Mr Brown for 15 minutes: I met him at the entrance, and after a discussion about football I never saw him again.' Your story presumably begins as the two of you go into the meeting, at which point you had known him for quarter of an hour.

share|improve this answer
1  
Knew is past tense. –  Barrie England Nov 11 '12 at 17:19
1  
@BarrieEngland Yes, but in this context it's a perfect-ive use. –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 17:33
    
@StoneyB You can argue that it expresses perfective aspect, but its form is indubitably past tense. Most grammarians would say that there is no perfect tense in English. –  Barrie England Nov 11 '12 at 18:00
1  
@StoneyB. Oh, purleeze! –  Barrie England Nov 11 '12 at 18:46
1  
Whereas the past tense does typically refer to ‘before-now’, the non-past is not restricted to what is contemporaneous with the time of utterance: it is used also for ‘timeless’ or ‘eternal’ statements [...] and in many statements that refer to the future (‘after-now’). In other words, a form like jumped is formally ‘marked’ as past, whereas *jump (or jumps) is ‘unmarked’. –Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 18:55

I met Mr Brown at the entrance and he accompanied to the meeting.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.