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