Thursday 27 May 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One Where the Present Perfect Overthrows the Simple Past)

I still don't know where the first spear came from. My only memory of it is wondering how it'd landed on my shield.

We were supposed to be a compact phalanx. A sea of overlappping shields and layered spear points ready to defend the enemy's target: the Headquarters of Verb Tenses. On the other side, the well-equipped forces of the Bad Grammar brigade. Numbering close to a million troops, they had been involved in skirmishes with us before, but we had never faced the prospect of a full-on battle as fierce and gory as the one unravelling before our eyes.

In reality the situation in which we found ourselves at the time should not have come as a surprise. The first salvo, as I remember, was shot on Gillette Soccer Saturday and I was sad to see its popular host Jeff Stelling presiding over the initial stages of the destruction of the Simple Past Tense. Here's the perpetrator-in-chief, Paul Merson: 'Great ball from, uh, Neville on the halfway line, he's played in Ronaldo, who's flicked it back to Berbatov (...) it's fell (sic) to Ronaldo, he's spun on it and he's seen...' I'd already stopped listening by then. "He's played in Ronaldo?' Excuse me? How about: 'He played in Ronaldo, who flicked it to Berbatov (...) it fell to Ronaldo, he span on it and he saw...'? Done and dealt with. In the past.

As a GSS devotee, it was not hard for me to realise that Paul was far from being the only analyst who indulged in simple past tense-annihilation. Almost every other match reporter made the same mistake: from articulate Scott Minto to Liverpool die-hard Phil Thompson. What caught me unawares was how popular the practice was becoming outside the studio, viz., in our daily lives. I, then, began to pay close attention to the conversations around me and the results, if truth be told, were less than encouraging.

A few examples chosen at random. "I've gone to the market yesterday and...", "I've seen you jogging the other day...", "Last night I've sent the car to the garage for an MOT, I hope..." Well, I hope the car is in better health than the owner, methinks. At least linguistically speaking.

That's why, based on the howlers above, I summoned my troops and on we headed to the Verb Tenses' main building. Roughly five thousand women and men, willing to lay down their lives to defend our grammar. But we knew that we were in no position to underestimate the enemy. They outnumbered us. Still, we were faring better: radio and television presenters still managed to differentiate the simple past (used to refer to a definite, finished action in the past) from the present perfect (used with have+past participle to refer to an action that has finished prior to the present). The print media had not fallen that low yet and has continued (at least the broadsheets and magazines I read) to abide by the rules. But even I was not prepared for the most abject act of betrayal.

By the end of the second day of battle, the Bad Grammar's infantry division had suffered a heavy defeat. And just as its leader was pondering on how to overpower us, fortune smiled at him in the shape of... a teacher. The traitor showed the chief of the rebel forces a secret path that would bring him around to our rear. Although I repudiated his actions at the time, I can understand his motivation now with the benefit of hindsight: he wanted change. He wanted language to be more flexible, English to be less obedient to unbending grammar precepts set down by academics in locked up cages and people to claim ownership of their language.

Three hundred troops. That's what was left at the end. We battled until the very end but we lost. Except for radio, television and the written press, the present perfect has overthrown the simple past in our day-to-day parlance. As Paul Merson would put it: 'PP's come down the right handside, turned on SP, left him behind and hit the ball into the top left corner'.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 30th May at 10am (GMT)


  1. You are a master! THIS is a wonderful post!

  2. I've barely noticed this particular assault... but now I'm sure I will.

  3. Great post, Cuban! I totally sympathize with you! The language I speak at home (one of the 17 official languages of India) originally had 50+ letters in the alphabet, but every decade or so a couple more of them get dropped by the wayside as unnecessary. And not just in everyday speech either. Even print media has taken on this rather dismal fashion into stride, thus strengthening this trend. Every time I pick up a newspaper and see one of these attrocities, I feel like throwing a tantrum, but I'm certainly among the very few who are complaining.

    So, looks like it's a global trend -- this leaning towards lenient grammar rules... Guess that's how languages morph.

  4. I first read this post this morning and, after that, every time I spoke in the past tense, I found myself being self conscious about which tense I was using and whether it was the proper one. I don't know whether to thank you or to curse you. Well, at the very least, I am tuned into an awareness of wanting to use the correct form.

  5. I enjoy it when it's dialectical, but not when it's laziness.
    I fear, however, you may be going the way of the 300...

    Great post.

  6. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.



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