Describing Your Life

Reading audio

31 March 2022

Imagine you want to talk about your life. Perhaps you are talking to a friend, presenting to an English class, or writing about your childhood.

You might start with where your life began – in other words, where and when you were born.

In today's Everyday Grammar, we will explore how one famous writer wrote about the place and time of a birth.

You will learn about some of the grammar behind the opening lines of one of the 20th century's most famous works of literature: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

Opening lines

The opening lines from Midnight's Children set up an important idea that runs through the book: that is, the words link the life and times of the main character to the history of India.

Notice how the sentences jump between past and present – a clear suggestion that the narrator is in the process of writing about his life.

I was born in the city of Bombay ... once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.

Note that the first sentence uses the simple past – "I was." The adjective "born" follows the BE verb: "I was born in the city of Bombay...."

But then there is an expression that ends the sentence. It is "once upon a time." This is a common structure used in fairy tales or folk tales.

The next sentence introduces the present tense, suggesting the narrator is talking to himself. Then it switches back to a more exact time during the past.

No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.

Having described where he was born, the narrator then describes when he was born.

And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it's important to be more ... On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact.

Note that Rushdie used some incomplete sentences – sentences without a verb. Examples include "And the time?", "Well then: at night," and "On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact."

All of these statements bring an everyday, conversational quality to the story.

But then Rushdie presents a beautiful image to the reader – one that changes back to the simple past.

Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.

The verb tumble means to move in a fast, confused, or uncontrolled way. It is often followed by an adverb, in this case forth, which means out into notice or view.

"I tumbled forth into the world" is a poetic way of saying "I was born."

General to specific

Notice that Rushdie's opening lines follow a very clear structure. These lines start with a general statement and then get increasingly specific.

The very general statement is: I was born in the city of Bombay.

The more specific statement is: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.

You can use the idea of moving from general information to specific information in almost any situation – describing an event, writing a story, giving a presentation, and so on.


Let's end this report with a homework assignment. In 5-8 sentences, write about the place or time of a birth. It can be either true or fictional. Try to use ideas that you have learned about in today's report.

Send your writing to our email address:

We will select one piece of writing and provide feedback and suggestions on next week's report.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

character – n. a person who appears in a story, book, play, movie, or television show

narrator – n. the person who describes what is being seen

on the stroke of – expression exactly at a specific time (often on the hour)

palm – n. the inside part of the hand between the wrist and the fingers

specific – adj. precise or exact