Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

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