These two paragraphs are from Toni Morrison's commencement address to the Barnard Class of 1979 (link), where she talked about Cinderella:

What is unsettling about it is that the story is essentially the story of a household, a world, if you please, of women. Of women gathered to abuse another woman. There is, of course, a vague rather absent father and a nick-of-time prince with a foot fetish. But neither has much personality. The real fireworks don’t concern the men, and do not take place among or between them. The surrogate “mothers” (god- and step-) contribute to Cinderella’s grief and to her release and happiness.

But it is her stepsisters who interest me. How crippling it must have been for those young girls to grow up with a mother, to watch and imitate that mother in the enslaving of another girl. How brutalized the sensibilities must be when you are encouraged, instructed, expected to live off the selfless labor of another woman. How poisonous to be forever in the company of a non-nurturing mother — a mother without milk.

In the second paragraph, if we were to replace must have been with must be, would the sentence become ungrammatical?

  • At the time the story starts, the sisters are already grown up. The notional time of orientation in Morrison's speech is the time the story is set in. Because the 'growing-up' happened before this, a prefect construction is used. Sometimes a modal + perfect construction can be used with the same effect as a past simple, but it can also be used with the same effect as a present perfect construction, as it is here in the sentence's most likely reading. Jan 11, 2022 at 15:33
  • [ The past simple reading is available because Morrison changes the way she is discussing the story. The present simple is used in the discussion of plots etc in the same way it is in recipes. The plot can be seen as a series of fixed events that never changes. (Close the book and reopen it, the story's still the same). Up until this point Morrison's been discussing the mechanics of the story. However, in this sentence, she steps inside the story and empathises with the characters. She has 'suspended her disbelief'. The sentence can thus be read as a straight description of past events.] Jan 11, 2022 at 16:20
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. So are you saying that "must be" is impossible here?
    – listeneva
    Jan 12, 2022 at 0:47
  • Well, there's nothing ungrammatical about it, but it would be an odd thing to say, because, as a present simple construction, that would imply that the growing up happens in the course of the story, but it doesn't. Jan 12, 2022 at 1:17

1 Answer 1


The sentence would remain grammatical, but it would mean that the crippling of the stepsisters was currently happening. This would be appropriate for a conversation taking place during the period between Cinderella's father's marriage and the ball, but the story is normally told (and discussed) from a viewpoint after all the events have already occurred.

The next sentence does use the present tense. This is because it is a more general statement; it does not explicitly refer to the Cinderella story but applies in other, similar situations.

  • Thanks. I do understand where you're coming from. In the prior paragraph, please note, Toni Morrison uses the present tense when discussing the story, which does not necessarily mean that the events of the story being discussed there are happening at the time of speaking. So I wonder why it has to be the past tense in "must have been".
    – listeneva
    Jan 11, 2022 at 5:53
  • The previous paragraph is in the present tense because it is discussing the story as it exists at the present time. We might use the past tense in discussing how it has changed.
    – Peter
    Jan 11, 2022 at 6:14
  • Then, why can't we discuss the story "as it exists at the present time" in the "How crippling..." sentence?
    – listeneva
    Jan 11, 2022 at 6:31
  • The sentence could be changed to "How crippling it must be for girls to grow up ...". This form of the sentence is like the next sentence in being more general. As the sentence stands it refers to those girls and treats them as real people, so the sentence adopts the story's world frame, where all the events are in the past (even lived happily ever after).
    – Peter
    Jan 11, 2022 at 7:24
  • I'm repeating the same thing. The sentences in the prior paragraph do have references to "real people" in the story's world frame (e.g., The surrogate “mothers”), but they still adopts the present tense. Why should the "How crippling..." sentence be treated differently?
    – listeneva
    Jan 11, 2022 at 13:24

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