Getting Down With Grammar: Explaining Proximal Language

This post applies a lot to the past tense (actually, for the most part it only applies to writing in the past tense), but as ninety percent of fiction seems to fall into that category, I wanted to talk about the subject. It’s a complex one, for sure.

First off, I should define what I mean by ‘proximal language.’ Proximal language in this case refers to words or phrases which suggest a proximity to the scenario or events being described in the narrative. Specifically, a temporal proximity, which is the real root of difficulties for anyone writing in past tense.

Now: This is the worst case of proximal language in my mind. The use of ‘now’ in a past tense work is jarring because (like all proximal language) it suggests that events are currently unfolding. For this reason, ‘now’ is rarely used in professionally edited works (and most editors will remove it if they see it). For example: Now John jumped out of the window.

This: Moving onto a more difficult word, ‘this’ is often a case of proximal language because it indicates that the narrator is currently in the scene and location that it refers to. So, if I were to say ‘John picked up this cup,’ it sounds as if I’m there, which conflicts with the past tense form.

But it isn’t always proximal language; when ‘this’ refers to an idea or action, it can be an essential differentiator (ie: ‘This appealed to John.’). Since ideas and actions can be seen as somewhat timeless/place-less, referring to them as ‘this’ doesn’t conflict with the past tense. However, for simplicity and readability’s sake, I like to use a simple test. If ‘this’ could be replaced by ‘that’ or ‘the’ without any loss of meaning, it’s usually optimal to do so.

Then: A hard one, because it isn’t strictly proximal. When ‘then’ is used incorrectly, it suggests the idea of an event happening after the current timeline, when ideally a narrator exists outside of the current timeline. ‘Then’ also tends to be redundant, as most readers automatically assume that events are presented in the order in which they occurred. One example: John jumped out of the window. Then he hit the ground hard.

Here: Rather like ‘this,’ ‘here’ suggests that the narrator is present for the scene they’re describing, watching events unfold. For this reason, ‘here’ has been phased out of recent fiction, although older past tense works used it somewhat often (likely owing to the fact that ‘here’ was all but interchangeable with ‘there’). Example: Here lay the hero, having fallen from the window.

I suppose this falls under the umbrella of advanced grammar. In any case, you could pick up just about any book and find multiple examples of proximal language. The problem comes when inexperienced authors and editors rely on it, peppering each chapter with ‘here’s and ‘now’s.

Since most of us on here are self-publishing (and therefore must become editors in our own right), I hope this brief discussion proves helpful. If it does, please like and share, or just leave a comment down below. I’m thinking of continuing this and expanding into a whole series of posts on advanced grammar, so if you’d like to see that all you have to do is show your support!

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