I have a confession to make.
It’s about a secret I have kept for many years from all persons, but my family and closest friends and co-workers.
But having turned 60 years old this past March, it occurs to me now that before I meet my maker, I’d best come earthly clean on this delicate subject.
I’ll call it “my aberration.”
I don’t remember the precise day I started down the dark path. All I am certain of is that by my early teens, I had already taken a keen interest in it.
Grammar, hardcore. Yep.
Magazines on the subject with glossy photos were hard to come by on the local drug store shelves, so I turned to books, some snuck into the family home in plain, brown paper bags.
What happened was that a collection of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s essays came to my hand one day, and when I’d completed my first translation a week or two later, the experience of turning into meaning what had appeared unintelligible shortly before overwhelmed me, as if the beatific choir were singing round my head.
In a flash, the existence and importance of properly marshaled nouns and pronouns, verbs and adverbs, prepositions, and passive and active modes, lit up like a Christmas tree. And has never dimmed.
Why? It certainly has never earned me an invitation to a party.
My only explanation is perhaps that that way of learning grammar may have appeared to my young, silly head almost like a sort of contraband, compelling more study.
Over time, that passion has led me to study other languages, among them Arabic, French, Biblical Hebrew and Old and Middle English, Latin and Classical Greek and Italian and Russian. Each one, complemented by linguistics, has deepened not only my knowledge of grammar and the wonder of language but also of cultures I have never visited.
For instance, I find it fascinating that in modern Italian, there is no singular, indefinite form for the noun “grape.” It is what is known as a mass noun. So, just as we say in English not “a air” or “a Cool Whip,” but “the air,” or “the Cool Whip,” Italians would never say, “I love a juicy grape;” they would say “I love the grape,“ not a grape.
Edward Fitzgerald caught this when he wrote of wine in his first translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, “He bid me taste of it/and lo, t’was the grape.” Yes, I know, the original is in Persian, but the distinction is there.
To go full nerd here, there is also the subject of “aspect.” That is, in one sense, the difference between the perfective viewpoint, which, like a helicopter would see an entire parade below unfolding from beginning to end, as expressed in the “-ed” of the simple past, and the imperfective viewpoint, which sees the parade on the ground, from within as it’s happening, the “ing” having nothing to say about the beginning, the middle and the end stages.
Having fessed up to digging this stuff, I have to trim my meaning a bit. For the word “grammar” conjures up images of some know-it-all who constantly, infuriatingly, slap-worthily leaps into a conversation to correct someone else’s speech.
That’s not my gig. For one thing, it’s a jerk thing to do, and it makes others want to kick you with proper gusto down a flight of stairs. As far as I am concerned, in conversation just about anything goes.
No, the dark grammarian in my psyche I trot out solely for the written word, and only then under strictly controlled conditions, like a full moon. My sole purpose is to make whatever bit of writing someone has put before me the best possible version of what they mean to say – but never to leave my fingerprints on it.
The goal is always clarity, clarity, clarity.
Here’s one concern. With an eye to the present perfect and why it matters in English, imagine two alternative paragraphs, the first beginning with the simple past statement, “Brutus killed Caesar,” and the second with the present perfect form,“Brutus has killed Caesar.”
Both sentences refer to a past event, so what’s the difference?
Well, the simple past, here, “killed” refers to an event with no discernible time relation to the present moment, other than that something happened at some interval before now, and it’s complete, finished. The time of occurrence and its relation to the moment of speaking is not at all specified; indeed, it could have happened thousands of years ago.
On the other hand, the present perfect refers to an event that happened in the recent past but has present relevance. It often imparts a sense of urgency about the event and the need for someone to do something about it. Right now. It also can only refer to a person or persons who are still alive. We would never say, except, for instance in a book or play, “Brutus has killed Caesar.”
It’s an important distinction you learn about particularly in the study of foreign languages, for instance in Russian or Chinese, where the emphasis falls on aspect: whether an action is complete or ongoing.
Yet, all too often I read in the opening paragraph of a narrative about an event – for instance, “The board awarded,” — without the slightest hint of its relation to the present moment. Or even, to put it bluntly, the current millennia. The correction is to use the present perfect or to include an explicit time stamp.
Does it really matter? Yes, it does. Again, clarity, clarity, clarity.
Incidentally, that concern for clarity is the sole reason why I have trouble with the recent dust-up about pronouns. It doesn’t fret me in conversation. But any written narrative that switches at intervals from “him” or “her” to “them” or “their” is certainly capable of confusing the reader, especially when said narrative returns to using “them” or “their” to refer to actual pluralities of people and back and forth.
I have had the unpleasant experience of trying to understand an ongoing narrative that shifts between pronouns without explanation. I can see shrewd lawyers taking advantage of the confusion in court to muddy the waters.
Then again, maybe I’m just an old dude, stuck in his ways. But as the great Samuel Johnson once said, “Sir, I am obliged to anyone who can teach me something.” And I am willing to learn.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.