or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Report Card

I've been thinking about verbs a lot lately, for three reasons: 1) I think about grammar a lot anyway, 2) I'm reading "A Linguistic Study of the English Verb" by F. R. Palmer, and 3) I'm studying French, and the verbs will be the death of me.

And now I'm thinking about reported speech.

Tuesday night after French class, I was going over some written exercises with the instructor. I had written a paragraph which contained a sentence that in English would read "She's pleased because her gynecologist just told her she isn't pregnant." We were meant to cast the entire piece in passé composée, so the instructor rightly altered the first verb, but then he baffled me by going on to alter the third one as well. I protested that that verb had to be in the present tense, because she isn't pregnant now, and the past tense would indicate that she hadn't been pregnant at some undefined point in the past.

Now it was his turn to be baffled. He--a native French speaker--couldn't understand how this could make any sense. He asked me a reasonable question: what if you had written the first verb in the past? So I said, "She was pleased because her gynecologist told her she isn't pregnant," and said that that could still be correct in English. Same thing again: if we put the third verb in the past, it can indicate something prior to the event in question. And then he was even more baffled than before, because to him that seemed as wrong as could be. I swore up and down that that was perfectly correct English. Evidently, though, it's not perfectly correct French, and so the entire sentence ended up in the past tense.

Finally--which is to say yesterday, when it was too late--it dawned on me that it wasn't so much French versus English as the idea of reported speech. ESL resources seem to insist that reported speech be cast in the past tense when the reporting verb is also in the past:

She said, "I live in my own apartment."
She said she lived in her own apartment.

Mike said, "I'm taking a course in linguistics next year."
Mike said he was taking a course in linguistics next year.

And yet it seems to me that that isn't true. In everyday idiomatic English, we could, and probably would, say:

She said she lives in her own apartment.
Mike said he's taking a course in linguistics next year.

Using the past tense can introduce ambiguity. The second sentence is unambiguous because there's another time marker--"next year". But in the first sentence, did she say that she used to live in her own apartment or that she does now? Using the present tense eliminates that ambiguity.

And now I shall have to apologize to my French instructor for the confusion and explain to him that what he learned when studying proper, bolted-down English is not necessarily the case in the world of free-style English.


Blogger Elizabeth said...

I followed your link through Fametracker (I'm about to cease being Pineapple over there) and I just wanted tell you I enjoy the soapbox! I mostly lurked anyhow so this isn't all that different. Its interesting!

Thursday, March 10, 2005 8:59:00 PM  

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