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Bryan's Grammar Blog
Thoughts on grammar and answers
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Question from Jerry:

I am in an English grammer quagmire. I am reading a novel right now and the author is using a term over and over in a way that totally takes me out of the story, because I am questioning the proper use of English grammer in this way.

The book is "Before I go To Sleep" by S.J. Watson and it takes place in great Britain in the current time period. The author is British as are the characters in the story. The story is that a woman suffers from amnesia as a result of a car crash some 20+ years earlier. She will recall certain memories every day but will forget them after she sleeps so that tomorrow she will wake up with a blank memory every day.

My problem is that way the author uses the term tp awaken. Here's a sentence: "I had woken with no memory of him." That seems such a strange way to say that she woke up with no memory. "...I had woken..." seems such a bizaar use of the word that it takes me out of the story every time he uses this term and the story uses it over and over.

Can this usage be right? Can it be proper use of grammer? Can the publisher be correct in letting this go on over and over? I'm not an English junkie just searching for anothers mistakes, I just find it hard to believe that a book publisher wwould allow this to go out in print, if it weren't legitimate.

Now in fairness, the author is a Brit and so are the characters in the story but in all the books I have read, I have never been so put off by the use of one word in my life.

Is it wrong or am I just being an idiot?

Jerry

Answer:

Hey Jerry!

"Before I Go to Sleep" sounds like a great book. I hope you're enjoying it so far! I am also a fan of British literature and any novel that takes place in Britain. The nation has such tradition and resiliency that its characters, fiction and real, inspire me to no end.

As a student of English literature, I've come to notice the British are unafraid to speak and write correctly, even if it sounds rough or awkward, and they are more used to it than we are. In America, it seems like we tack on so many extra words just to sound approachable and friendly: we say "woken up" when really, the act of waking, to wake, has a definite beginning and end. One goes from dreams to awareness, rest to activity, without necessarily needing to be "up."

In your book, it sounds like the past plays a huge role in the present and future lives of the characters. The woman with amnesia starts to distrust her husband, questioning his current motives and what he may do in the future. As the plot line depends on the past, present, and future, so does the grammar. "Had woken" is, indeed, the correct usage of the verb "to wake," in the past perfect tense. It is called "past" because the verb was acted upon before the present moment in which its action is being explained. In speaking and writing, when we say "I had woken," "She had slept," or "He had risen," it is in the context of a dialogue with a listener, listeners or ourselves. In "Before I Go to Sleep," the protagonist probably thinks a lot to herself as she pieces together her memories, right? So, when she's thinking, "I had woken," she's trying to piece together what happened next. "I had woken, but then, I couldn't remember a thing from the day before. I had experienced it, gone to sleep, and have just woken with no memory of the day before." We call it "perfect" because it definitively happened, though, in the context of these dialogues, in which people try to order sequences of events with others or themselves, what happened afterwards isn't always so certain. For the protagonist in "Before I Go to Sleep," it sounds like the grammar of her brain needs to be relearned for her to make sense of life!

Now, don't let correct grammar get you down. British publishers and editors know their verb tenses very well, they just try not to dress up the words like we casually do in America. There is a rhythm to language that can sound halted and jumpy, but once you slow down and absorb it, practice it aloud and in your mind, many people will be impressed by your command of the English language, like a true Englishman, or American, if you please!

Thanks for Emailing,
Bryan