Why did Beatrix Potter choose the past tense?

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cheshire

Senior Member
Japanese
The following is a quote from Beatrix Potter's The Pie and the Patty-Pan. I don't know why she chose to use the past tense in "I did not remember..." sentence. If the author were me, I would write "I don't remember that I have minced it up so fine."
Could you help me understand it?

I think it would be wiser if I helped myself to pie...What very small fine pieces it has cooked into! I did not remember that I had minced it up so fine; I suppose this is a quicker oven than my own.
 
  • cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    More context would be helpful, but what's here makes clear that-

    1) She is speaking after the pie has been baked: "... it has cooked into".
    2) The action of mincing took place in a past time, hence it requires either "...had minced it up" or "I minced it up". The past perfect is stylistically better here, and more idiomatic in BE as well.

    If you were to attempt a rephrasing using the present tense for the speaker, it would be more idiomatic to say
    "I don't remember having minced it up so fine." The original is perfectly good as written.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The following is a quote from Beatrix Potter's The Pie and the Patty-Pan. I don't know why she chose to use the past tense in "I did not remember..." sentence. If the author were me, I would write "I don't remember that I have minced it up so fine."
    Could you help me understand it?
    I think she's deliberately making it sound a little precious by subtly altering the tense use: it sounds at once old-fashioned - even for her time - and arch. Who is speaking? This cook is being presented as a very fussy person, I think.
     

    cheshire

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    I think she's deliberately making it sound a little precious by subtly altering the tense use: it sounds at once old-fashioned - even for her time - and arch. Who is speaking? This cook is being presented as a very fussy person, I think.
    Can we sound precious by shifting tense to the past? I've never heard such rhetoric in any language!:eek:
    To me shifting tense is reserved for subjunctive.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Can we sound precious by shifting tense to the past? I've never heard such rhetoric in any language!:eek:
    To me shifting tense is reserved for subjunctive.
    The natural thing to say these days would be: I don't remember mincing it up so fine.

    I'm not sure what they would have said most naturally a hundred years ago.

    I think adults sometimes surprise children by the tenses they use, and maybe Beatrix Potter is trying that trick here: stressing the adulthood by making her speak strangely. Also she seems to be talking to herself, and people who do that often use strange tenses. Is that possible, Cheshire? is this an adult speaking in a child's world?
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    No, this is not stylistic, nor is it precious. Logically, we can only refer to our own state of mind as being erroneous after it has passed into the past. For instance, it makes no sense to say "I am currently under the false impression that there is enough sugar in the bowl, whereas in reality there is not enough." So, when the speaker refers to a belief that is now deemed incorrect, he or she must use the past, and therefore, must describe something that preceded that belief using the pluperfect: I thought I had done so-and-so. Similarly, we can't describe a situation of having momentarily forgotten something factual, until we finally think of it once again: I forgot I had done so and so (but now I remember).
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thanks everyone, for help!
    Isn't the reason just this? That the remembering took place in the past, not now.
    I'd considered that idea and rejected it, Cheshire. You could say 'I didn't remember to mince it up fine', suggesting that you hadn't followed instructions properly when you made the pie. She's not saying that, though.
    The tenses used suggest that we are dealing with three separate times: 1. the time she made the pie, 2. a moment later when she didn't remember how finely she'd cut up the pieces, and 3. now as she's proposing to eat it.

    I did not (at 2) remember that I had (at 1) minced it up so fine.

    I really don't see the need for such complication. What's the matter with: I don't (now at 3) remember cutting it up (at 1.) so fine?

    I stand by my view that she's using funny tenses to present this adult through a child's eyes. It's rather a subtle and interesting idea.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I am not convinced that there is any real contradiction between Thomas's and Konkursvia's and Cheshire's interpretations. I didn't remember mincing it up so fine, but now that I have evidence before my eyes that I did mince it up fine I have no faith in that memory any more, so the memory no longer exists. This is not the sort of thing that adults typically admit to: they are afraid of the men in white coats. http://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/m/men_in_white_coats.asp

    By the way, we are talking about doggy memory here, which may not work in exactly the same way as human memory.

    The story is on-line here http://www.rickwalton.com/authtale/potter07.htm
     

    cheshire

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    TT, let me tell a bit about the plotline.
    The speaker is a female dog, who has been invited by a cat to eat a pie made from mice. She was afraid to eat it, so she slipped into the cat's house when she's out and replaced the mice pie with her own safe pie.
    But she ended up eating the mice pie!

    Frankly, I don't understand "adult through a child's eyes" theory.

    I thought reading teddy's reply: maybe the sentence is "subjunctive."
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    konungursvia said:
    Logically, we can only refer to our own state of mind as being erroneous after it has passed into the past. For instance, it makes no sense to say "I am currently under the false impression that there is enough sugar in the bowl, whereas in reality there is not enough."
    I'm not very happy about this in the context, konungursvis. It's true that we can't say I am wrong to think that X. But we aren't talking about thinking, we are talking about remembering, and remembering is one of our own states of mind which we can talk about as being defective in the present: I do not remember is perfectly correct, logical, and acceptable.
    TT, let me tell a bit about the plotline.
    The speaker is a female dog, who has been invited by a cat to eat a pie made from mice. She was afraid to eat it, so she slipped into the cat's house when she's out and replaced the mice pie with her own safe pie.
    But she ended up eating the mice pie!

    Frankly, I don't understand "adult through a child's eyes" theory.

    I thought reading teddy's reply: maybe the sentence is "subjunctive."
    Well, that explains a lot, Cheshire. Time 1 is when she made the pie, time 2 is when she slipped into the house, and time 3 is now, when she's eating it. The tenses used reveal the existence of a significant time 2. So we did actually need that extra complication of the tenses.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I thought reading teddy's reply: maybe the sentence is "subjunctive."
    My feeling is that it is past indicative. The Duchess remembered but no longer remembers.

    I think that this is a perfectly normal experience. I know that when I was a child I used to say that my earliest memory was of an old-fashioned open fire with a brass grate. Now I no longer really remember that fire; but I do remember that I used to remember it. I no longer know whether that memory was real or not.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The versions using did not are different in meaning from those using do not.
    Ignoring the the plot-line for the moment :) Let's get out the time-line:

    Past >........ A ....... B ........> now.

    I did not remember that I had minced it up so fine;
    Speaking now.
    I minced it up fine at A.
    I'm speaking about my thoughts at time B.
    At that time, I did not remember that I had minced it up so fine.
    Now I do remember doing so.

    I do not remember that I (had) minced it up so fine.
    Speaking now.
    I minced it up at time A.
    I still don't remember mincing it up so fine.

    I don't know if that fits with the plot-line, though. This is one of the few Beatrix Potter's that we don't own :)
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Isn't it odd how expressing an everyday thought in a slightly unusual way, removing it from the realm of cliche, can reveal unsuspected implications?

    If the Duchess had said I didn't think I had minced it up so fine, which is the everyday way of expressing exactly the same idea, it would never have occurred to any native speaker of English hearing the sentence to wonder at the mutable nature of consciousness.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Isn't it odd how expressing an everyday thought in a slightly unusual way can lead to a philosophical discussion?

    If the Duchess had said I didn't think I had minced it up so fine, which is the everyday way of expressing exactly the same idea, it would never have occurred to any native speaker of English to wonder at the mutable nature of consciousness.
    You're right, Teddy, there are crucial differences between thinking and remembering, which have grammatical consequences. Remembering is one of those verbs, like knowing, which, unlike thinking, give a firm pledge about the truth of what one is saying. We can't say I know that X, but X may not be true, or I remember X happening, but X may not have happened. We can say I think that X, but X may not be true.
     
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