Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Getting all tense about tense

We just came back from four days up at the cottage. Between putting worms on hooks, preparing meals, swimming, and drying off children, I managed to do some reading. I had just started The Way the Crow Flies when I came across the following passage.
"...everything about an air force station is new. And it will stay that way for its entire operational life...The families in the PMQs will always seem like the first families to move in, they will always have young children of about the same age. Only the trees will change, grow. Like reruns on television, an air force station never grows old. It remains in the present. Until the last flypast. Then it is demobilized, decommissioned, deconsecrated. It is sold off and all the aging, the buildup of time that was never apparent, will suddenly be upon it. It will fade like the face of an old child. Weeds, peeling paint, decaying big-eyed bungalows...
But until that happens, the present tense will reign."
Leaving aside the issues of "coordinating conjunctions" and "comma splices", neither of which bothered me, the use of the word tense in the last sentence stuck in my craw. Why tense?

Indeed, tense is related to time, but tense is purely a grammatical issue and I don't think Ann-Marie MacDonald intended to say anything about grammar, did she? Is this an instance of linguification? Is MacDonald claiming that the majority of the finite verbs used on the station will be in the present tense1, but that that will change once it's decommissioned?

I expect, having used, "It remains in the present" a few lines ealier, MacDonald was merely looking for some stylistic variation, but I wish she hadn't gone for tense.

But perhaps I'm being overly pedantic. It seems that, for most English speakers, tense just means something like, "verb form". When The New York Times thinks there is a conditional tense and The Economist thinks there's a passive one, perhaps that's what tense actually means. When ESL teachers sit around in a meeting discussing how many tenses to cover in a semester (English only has two or three), perhaps we need to accept that using tense to mean a grammatical form that is primarily used to locate a verb in time is technical jargon. And if MacDonald wants to use it to mean time in a novel, why not?

[1] Likely true; the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English tells us that, "conversation and academic prose alike show a strong preference for present tense forms.")

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