Saturday, July 7, 2012

Past Tense? Pass. (Plus: the Three Things I Know)

Abraham Lincoln walks into the theater …
Julius Caesar is standing at the Rubicon …
A guy walks into a bar …

I am undereducated on so many topics that my stupidity springs up and slaps me across the face just about every day – whether it’s basic geography, the European financial crisis or how to fix a toilet that keeps running, I am continually confronted with the fact that there is a vast ocean of information upon which I have no grasp.

So I don’t usually take pride in the tiny body of knowledge that I seem to have mastered, which really boils down to three things:
  1. The lyrics of The Great American Songbook, including many of the verses
  2. How to parallel park a car
  3. The essential constructs of English grammar
A refusal of pride does not signify the lack of an opinion, however, and therefore I do find myself doing the old-lady-sputter-and-spew at the current trend to eliminate the past tense in spoken English. Perhaps I am just listening to too much NPR again, but I find that every moldy old historian who has a book to plug refuses to speak about their subject as if the person is no longer living. There they are, snuggled up to Audie Cornish or Guy Raz in the swank radio booth, purring into the microphone with some inanity like, “So Amelia Earhart gets into the plane …”

“Really?” I shout back at the radio, usually pulling the car out of its proper lane and coming perilously close to a collision (Good driving is not one of three things I know about. Just parking.) “Amelia Earhart is not currently doing anything, you pathetic, pluperfect poophead!” And then I gain control of my senses and remember that I haven’t correctly added anything without the aid of a calculator in thirty years, okay forty years, and I shut up.

But still, what has happened to the past tense? I totally understand this desire to bring the events of history to life, but dear God, not at the expense of a perfectly good tense, which has never done any harm to anyone. Because I am a modern American, and because we never notice a problem without assigning blame, I am pointing the finger at two villains: teenagers and elevators.

The first villain is easy enough to tag with blame, because everyone blames teenagers for everything. I live with two of them, and I do it all the time. Plus, have you ever listened to the conversation of a gaggle of teens? There is no past tense for these darlings, as they relate the highlights of their day to the fellow members of their smart set. It's all happening As We Speak: “So I’m like, no way, and he’s like way, and I’m like you are cra-cra, true dat?”

The second culprit is elevators, which are the place that elevator speeches are supposedly delivered, those little nuggets of info that are supposed to convey the essence of a scheme in the time it takes to get to the ninetieth floor (and start getting down in the dumps, a la Cole Porter, thus returning to the topic of my #1 area of useless knowledge). This elevator business started with the Hollywood pitch: “Garden State meets Vertigo meets The Royal Tenenbaums!” Now it’s something that every businessperson seems up have up their sleeve for cocktail party banter: “My company is basically Geek Squad meets Molly Maids meets the Death Star.” Notice, I say as I cue the ominous chords, the lack of a past tense.

I suppose I should stop shouting at the radio and assigning blame and just accept that the heyday of the past tense has, sadly, passed. And it’s okay. Not all languages grammaticalize tense. Emma tells me that there is no tense at all in Chinese (which makes sense if you’ve spent time with Emma or have tried to cross the street in Beijing recently). And English doesn’t even have the most tenses of all the languages, because the six-tense language Kalaw Lagaw Ya of Australia uses the remote past, the recent past, the today past, the present, the today-near future and the remote future. (And yes, I did look that up on Wikipedia, thank you very much.)

So I (present tense) accept the inevitable, admit failure and acknowledge that the past tense makes everything seem so, well, dated. And if those teens and elevator speech-makers ever want to change their tunes and come over the dark side of pluperfect past tenses, they’re welcome to join me in a world where everything has already happened, and where everyone is free to sputter at the radio and curse those trendy, present-tense historians.

1 comment:

  1. Julie, you are a stitch! I have a bumper sticker posted on Bill's* office door that makes me sputter daily: DO NOT ENTER UNLESS YOUR NOT A BILL

    *my husband