Thursday, December 11, 2008

Languishing in a Proustian fog of indolence and dissipation . . .

. . . is what I wish I'd been doing this week; instead, it's wall-to-wall LEGO Star Wars and futzing around with my new computer --let this be a lesson to you: the quickest way to a new (Windows) PC, if you don't know what you're doing, is to install Ubuntu through a complete hard drive wipe. And so I'm hopelessly behind on reading Swann's Way.

There's plenty of pop-culture fun on my mind, but that's what you have the rest of the internet for. This is the No Pop Culture Blog. The above mentions of LEGO and Star Wars are to be stricken from the record, and the readership are to disregard them in reaching their verdict. Their verdict as to whether they'll continue reading, I guess.

Let's talk about the past perfect (in English) for a while. Take a verb like swim: he swims; he swam yesterday, when he was swimming; he has swum before. My guess is that some of you --or rather, if my readership was substantially larger, then a subset of it-- were surprised by the form swum in the last example. And now we realize that this is a bad example, because swum is a rather rare form, and I'm guessing that plenty of people don't use it --I learned it, as a boy, from Disney's Robin Hood (there's that damned pop culture again), and upon first hearing it thought it sounded decidedly odd; naturally I had to adopt it as an affectation immediately, and cleave to it from then on.

Digression: on is not a preposition in that sentence, but it might be a post-position. I once did a paper on the post-position in English, because English doesn't have any, generally (ago is the exception). I don't think I collected this use of on, but I collected plenty of other bad examples of what were not post-positions at all, so it won't hurt much if I'm wrong about this one too.

I was talking about the past perfect, right? Forget swum. Let's go with the common, perfectly ordinary inflected forms, like ridden and written and taken. Whoops. These forms, if I'm going to call them PAST perfect, have to be combined with auxiliaries, and will have the same form whether they're present perfect with has or past perfect with had. Anyway, what I'm tryng to get to is that lots of people don't use this form. I had a very small collection of examples, but I've decided that, since it's impossible to bring up this kind of minuscule usage variation without sounding like you're calling for conformity to a standard, I'm not going to report the examples. And that also means that I have no point to make. I've led you down the garden path and there is nothing left to do but club you over the head and drag you back to my cooking fire.

That's kind of icky. Okay, I will peeve out a bit on this subject. Because it's easy to recognize the colloquial use of the past tense form in place of the perfect form (had wrote instead of had written) and people don't want to commit the most heinous of crimes, the solecism, I think there is a common tendency to overcorrect (you automobilists know how bad this is) and I hear a lot of past perfect forms when the past tense is what's called for. Listen for it on NPR --not the hosts, but the people on the street. Now that I think of it, it's probably not overcorrection at all; using the past perfect when you're explaining how something happened probably signals that the past perfect verbs are part of the action of the story --a way of keeping track of two different time streams, the story and the present conversation. So did I lead you down another garden path? Oh, look over there! Club club.

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