Submitted by Cheshire  •  November 10, 2011

God only knew

Do we change tenses on common expressions when writing fiction? “God only knew” sounds bizarre, but I find it difficult to let “knows” persist when writing...

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Even if your prose is in the past tense, not everything the narrator says must be cast that way. For example, in:

"God only knows what John was thinking when he decided to rob the bank."

clearly, God's omniscient understanding of John's incomprehensible motives is ongoing in the present of the narrative, even if John's actions are in the past. Actually, even in non-fiction and common speech, "God only knows" is frequently used to describe past events: "What where you thinking??? God only knows!!!"

This doesn't necessarily apply to every common expression or even other examples of this expression. I would look at each on a case-by-case basis.

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I believe it rests on the premise that God is all-knowing, all the time. So anything He ever knew, He always did know, knows now, and will forever know. It's similar to the quote "before Abraham was, I am." While that conflicts with tense in English syntax, it is seen as a correct statement because that is His forever state of being. Consider it the 'perfect tense' form. So, regardless of when an event took place, God only knows what happened.
Also gives the impression that everyone else has forgotten (or died) and God is the only one left who really knows what went on. Also that He's the only unbiased source; the only one with a purely objective view of things.

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Has God forgotten since the incident? If he knew at the time but no longer knows, then it is written in past tense. In most cases, he would still know, even if it had been a person who is now dead, as it is assumed the knowledge lives on in his soul.

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Did God forget since the incident? If he did, then it would past tense. In most cases, one would not suddenly stop knowing something, and so you would assume that God only knows. This remains true with people; if someone was to get a coma and forget, then he knew. If he knew until he died, it would be assumed that the knowledge lives on in his soul, and he still knows. However, when referring to a specific incident, and you wish to convey that he already posessed the knowledge by the time of the incident, then you would make it past tense. "He knew he shouldn't have done it. " implies that he had considered the consquences as too great prior to the activity, while "He knows, now, that he shouldn't have done it. " implies that he has figured out since the activity that it was a bad idea.

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What about something like:

Back then, God only knew what was going through our minds.

does this make sense?

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This is an example of what is really an idiomatic expression, one which is not at all dependent on one's belief in a deity. But its basis is, of course, the traditional Christian God concept, in which, as mentioned above, God's knowing is in the present tense.

If one were to use a similar construction with non-supernatural beings, one probably would use either past or present tense, depending on whether or not they still know.

The "God only knows" expression is rather trite and overused, so it might make better prose to construct it in past, rather than present tense, just to be less so.

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Sorry about that, the first comment didn't appear until after I posted the second.

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