Grammar Shock: Person, Tense, Time, and Sense

For most of us, grammar is like electricity; we use it all the time, usually correctly, but we don’t really know what it is or how it works, but we do know it can be dangerous. We wouldn’t want to discuss inflection while standing barefoot in a pool of water, or mix tenses when changing fuses.

We are advised in a discussion of  the verb paradigm, in Huddleston and Pullum’s English Grammar, that “The relation between tense and time in English…is by no means straightforward.” I never doubted it, but it’s always nice to hear that your hunches have friends.

And so it came as no surprise to find Roger Angell, in the February 15 & 22 issue of the New Yorker, in what he calls “another strange journalistic effort,” mixing memory and desire and person and tense, a dangerous business. “We are getting ahead of ourselves,” Angell says, slipping into first person plural, in what might be an imitation in present time or a nostalgic nod to his stepfather, E. B. White, and a tradition that he apparently disliked but that came to define a certain style and journalistic era. (I read recently somewhere of some editor taking out the old knob and tube of White’s first person plurals and replacing them with modern conduit; we trust they wore gloves).

Angell switches person in his present piece in part because like his subject, “Mac [St. Clair McKelway],” he “knew them when.” And, as Angell deftly illustrates in his piece, keeping one’s tense and person straight is basic to nursing our sanity, particularly during wartime, but as well afterwards when we might be haunted by the decisions and indecisions that changed our lives forever. “It keeps you awake at night,” Angell says (now hiding behind the second person), after he’s diagnosed that sleep deprivation was no doubt a major contribution to “Mac’s madness, Mac’s fugue – let’s call it a flight, in this story….” Just so, English Grammar points out that “The usual definition found in grammar books and dictionaries says simply that the past tense expresses or indicates a time that is in the past. But things are nothing like as straightforward as that. The relation between grammatical category of past tense and semantic property of making reference to past time is much more subtle.”

There is a tense, most usefully expressed in music, but sometimes also in writing, where we can’t seem to locate our precise situation in time. The inflections all come together into one person and tense that seems some crazy mix-up of all possible persons and tenses. Perhaps this tense is properly called sleep. But when you can’t sleep, it’s called ungrammatical, a kind of linguistic power surge.