On Language

I’m really into grammar–to the point where people audibly seethe if I attempt to correct them–so I read William Safire’s weekly On Language column in the NYTimes Magazine.  You can admire a man’s grasp of the English language without endorsing his political views.  Anyway, I generally dig Safire, but I disagree with this:

Tenses of verbs tell the general time that action takes place. When you have two verbs in the same sentence, they should not fight each other’s timing. For example, here comes inconsistency: “I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I prefer politics.” Wanted is past tense, prefer is present tense; the two parts of the sentence are inconsistent. Make them both past, or both present: “I wanted to be a ballet dancer” (past tense), “but I preferred politics” (also past tense).”

I agree with the rule, but I think that the example he cites is one of those exceptions that proves it.  So, take the amended sentence that Safire suggests:  “I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I preferred politics.”  Makes sense, but it has a different sense than the original, “I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I prefer politics.”  The latter suggests an abiding preference for politics; the former leaves that preference in the past tense, suggesting not necessarilly that the preference no longer stands, but that it’s not as strong as it was.  Or, at least, that’s what my intuition says.

Does that make sense?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been sitting at my computer all day, I’m going slightly crazy, and I think that tonight I’m going to tie one on.  Old fashioned style.

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One response to “On Language

  1. morningbiscuit

    Jesus, Tom. I stopped by to check out your blog and have found you debating verb usage. I am oh-so embarrassed for you. “…Have found…?” Does that work? What is that, a past participle? Subjunctive-imperfect? Who the fuck knows?!

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