iterative-vs-singular-time

When writing about different temporalities in children’s literature, academic Maria Nikolajeva makes a useful distinction between ‘iterative’ time and ‘singular’ time.

Iterative Time

In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.

Iterative: ‘In the winter time the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry…there was a good deal of storytelling.’ (In which storytelling is a ritual act). There are a lot of iterative sentences in circular stories such as Anne of Green Gables, as well as in The Secret Garden.

Singulative Time

A singulative sentence applies to an action in this particular story. Stories for children often start in the iterative then switch to the singulative.

All over town, from basket and bowl, he pilfered and pillaged, he snitched and he stole. (ITERATIVE)

He pulled them, he dragged them, he HEAVED them until… he’d carried them home to his house on the hill. (ITERATIVE)

One rascally night between midnight and four, Slinky Malinki stole MORE than before.(SINGULATIVE)

— from Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

slinky malinki teddy bear

In picture books the switch to the singulative part of the story is often marked very clearly with a phrase such as ‘But one day’ or ‘However, on her fifth birthday’ or any similar variation.

Below is the switch from iterative to singulative in The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen:

lazlo's bedroom

Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo

Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo

Chapter Five marks a switch from the iterative to the singular. This is where the *current* adventure begins.

Chapter Five marks a switch from the iterative to the singular. This is where the *current* adventure begins.

How The French Do It

Note that this division doesn’t necessarily hold for all languages. As James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, grammar works differently in French:

French verb forms allow [Flaubert] to use the imperfect past tense to convey both discrete occurrences (“he was sweeping the road”) and recurrent occurrences (“every week he swept the road”). English is clumsier, and we have to resort to “he was doing something” or “he would do something” or “he used to do something”–“every week he would sweep the road”–to translate recurrent verbs accurately. But as soon as we do that in English, we have given the game away, and are admitting the existence of different temporalities.

Iterative Vs Singulative In Literature For Adults

While this distinction is particularly obvious in picture books for children, might we also see it in books for older readers?

Yes, though it’s a lot more complex. In a picture book, you can pretty reliably expect the first few pages of the book to be in the iterative, especially if the author is introducing a new character. Then, after the switch to the ‘story at hand’ (the singular), there’s no switch back.

In a novel for sophisticated readers, there is a constant switch between iterative and singulative and the reader copes with this no trouble at all. In genre fiction such as thrillers and crime, rather than starting with the iterative, the modern requirement is for the story to grip the reader, so stories often begin in medias res. In contrast a novel which begins in the iterative lets the reader know that they’re in for a quieter, less disturbing read. Unless you get someone like Stephen King, who likes lengthy set-ups just so he can lull you into a sense of security before knocking you upside the head. It is perhaps psychological thrillers which are more likely to make use of this particular technique, since the setting is very often domestic, and domestic life is by its very nature iterative.