Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ben Yagoda on Language

Having just written a post questioning the value of taking on a century-old usage book, I turn to a number of columns written by author, critic, and teacher Ben Yagoda, one of which is more than twenty years old.

Even though they've been around for a long time, they're new to me. I had previously read and quite enjoyed The Sound on the Page and a number of his essays, including a collection of cliches in the voice of Mr. Arbuthnot, so I was pleased to stumble on his web site. Through a happy series of links that began with a blog post by Ben Zimmer and passed through the Wikipedia entry on Michiko Kakutani, I ended up looking at his list of On Language articles. These I also enjoyed, but the grammatical analysis bothered me.

Before going on, you should read "Tense talk".

Welcome back!

The column begins with a quote from Slobodan Zivojinovic to introduce the idea of the sports present. "If I'm in the crowd, I'd be on Jimmy's side." Indeed, this is ungrammatical in English, but as you note, he's not a native speaker. You continue, "its purest form can be seen in this comment, made by Indiana University coach Bob Knight, after a game was won by his team with the particular help of one of his players: 'If we don't have Daryl Thomas, we lose.'" This, however, strikes me as a different construction, grammatical, and completely unremarkable (if you'll pardon the lack of parallelism).

In both constructions, the protasis (the if clause) is in the simple present, but the apodoses (the main clauses) differ, with Zivojinovic (as a non-native speaker) shifting to the past-tense modal would but Knight sticking to the simple present.

The most common use of the simple present tense in English is, unintuitively, to state general facts rather than the particulars of the moment. Thus, it seems Knight was simply saying something like, "It is generally true that when Daryl Thomas is not playing, we lose," (and conversely that when he plays, they win.) Grammatically, it's like, "If we don't have tomatoes, we don't make Bolognese sauce," or in the affirmative, "If Ed is your cousin, we're related."

Knight's use seems quite different from Jerry Rice's "It's a different game if we score," which appears to be a counterfactual assertion about the completed game, but could still be a general statement. Not so Lawrence Taylor's ''If they score on that one, they lose 49-10." Obviously, he's talking about a the NFC Divisional playoff.

Here, I'll grant Yagoda his "sports present". I would have said, "It would have been a different game if we had scored," and "If they had scored on that one, they would have lost 49-10." But what's happening grammatically? 

Yagoda's take on it is somewhat dismissive: "The hypothetical conditional is a complicated tense, one that requires an awful lot of words." Dumb jocks!

The backshifted form isn't so much longer though:
  • It's a different game if we score, (8 words)
  • It would have been a different game if we had scored, (11 words)
  • It would have been a different game had we scored, (10 words)
  • If they score on that one, they lose 49-10. (9 words)
  • If they'd scored on that one, they'd've lost 49-10. (12 words)
I don't think it's a matter of constrained processing power limiting the number of words. The present tense is used in running commentaries to lend an immediacy to the event ("We were just sitting there having a beer and suddenly the waiter starts screaming."), but here it's in conflict with the use of the past tense to suggest some factual distance, a certain hypotheticality. But contrary to Yagoda's assertion, I don't see the past tense as mandatory in such cases. He burdens Quirk et al with the job of setting out "the proper way to construct such a sentence." But I think the authors would be more comfortable explaining the possible ways. Generally, there is a choice between past and present with the past tense indicating less likelihood: "If you go, I'll go." vs. "If you went, I'd go." 

Clearly, a contrafactual statement about the past is about as unlikely as things get, but I can still see the present tense being used for immediacy. It's the normal way to do it, but I don't think it's mandatory.

Speaking of mandatory, I also read his article in Slate, "You need to read this." Here Yagoda says, 

"In the battle for pre-eminence among verbs of compulsion or requirement, need to has won a bloodless and overwhelming victory over mustought toshould, and the former and longtime champion, have to, which yields only about a billion Google hits compared to two billion for need to."
Yagoda's  ear for language proves note perfect here. A search of the Time corpus shows the use of need to accelerating from about 16 instances per million words in the 1920s to 70 pmw in the 80s to over 200 pmw today.

 At the same time, use of must is dropping, though not quite as quickly.

But then he stumbles. 

"The ascendance of need to dovetails perfectly with the long and sad decline of the traditional imperative mood. Sad, because it's a great mood. Without it, the Ten Commandments would be the Ten Suggestions."
Much as I like "the Ten Suggestions", only two of the Ten Commandments, in their traditional English form at least, are imperative. The other eight are indicative. Most are rhetorically mandative, but mood is a morphosyntactic category. If the commandments were imperative, they would all start with do not instead of thou shalt not. His next example, no smoking also fails to illustrate the imperative mood, which would be don't smoke. In fact, no smoking is arguably just a noun phrase with no mood, tense, or aspect at all. The pop songs he lists, though, are all impeccably imperative.

(This is an edited version of an e-mail I dashed off to the author. Embarrassingly, my e-mail had a number of fairly serious errors, which later caught and have corrected here. Please, let me know if there are others I've missed.)

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