On Thursday night, Newsnight Scotland devoted the programme to the standard of teaching in Scottish schools, and to the thorny question of teachers’ literacy and numeracy. Graham Donaldson, commissioned by the Scottish Government to review these matters, gave as an example the “particularly common problems in Scotland in the use of the past tense.”
I remember my own early problems with grammar in my primary school in a deprived area of Glasgow - the Calton - in a class predominantly composed of children from poor and deprived families. We were all bi-lingual - broad Glesca and a passible imitation of ‘proper’ English - and like most Scots of the time, our syntax was basically sound. Scots never would say “I were’t stood at corner …” (Yorkshire) or “Give we wor dinner … (Newcastle).
However, the rules of grammar, as expounded by the teachers, left most of us baffled. I was an avaricious reader from my earliest years, and the children’s comics of those days were significantly text-based, with the Adventure, Hotspur, Wizard and Rover almost totally consisting of extended stories, and even the Beano and Dandy carrying at least one story among the comic strips. I readily grasped the idea of verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions, but beyond that, it was a mystery.
When Miss Branigan said that but was “a disjunctive coordinating conjunction”, and poor John Smith, who got belted every day because he couldn’t read (he was clearly dyslexic, but nobody had heard of that condition back then ) got belted again for the memorable line - “But Miss Branigan, is but no’ jist but?”
But but was just but to all of us - we had no problem using it correctly. I rashly asked Miss Branigan what disjunctive meant, but she clearly had no idea, and blustered desperately. We had a little book, rudiments of grammar, and I got by in exams because, whatever my limitations in formal grammar, my compositions (i.e. essays) were always OK.
And so to the past tense in the present state of teaching in our schools. It comes as no surprise to me that some teachers are all at sea with the past tense, because they are the children of the modern media age, and have assimilated by a process of osmosis the grammar of American film and television of the last fifty or so years, a very different experience from the cinema of my formative years - the great, literate age of classic cinema.
Winston Churchill, a master of the English language, once said that America and Britain were separated by a common language, and I know the truth of that after fourteen years in an American company, Goodyear. But the grand, irascible old man would have been horrified about what has happened since, in both Britain and America.
Without venturing into the arcane mysteries of the past, present and future subjunctive moods, the problem that I hear every day on television and radio, in cinema, and in everyday exchanges with the young and early middle-aged, centre around either the use of the present tense to describe past events or the use of the word would.
Here is someone describing incident at a party they attended the previous week -
“I’m standing with a drink in my hand and Jane comes in, and says to me, like, who invited you? I’m like, what the hell has it got to do with you, so I tell her to mind her own business.”
Some decades ago, most people would have phrased it differently, as would most people over fifty or so today.
“I was standing with a drink in my hand and Jane came in, and asked me who had invited me. I wondered what it had to do with her, so I told her to mind her own business.”
I am not an advocate of ‘correctness’ in language, which is a living, constantly evolving thing. As someone who has acquired such language skills as I possess by reading, listening and by usage, rather than by formal study of grammar and style, I value clarity, economy and vigour of expression over adherence to rules of grammar or received style and pronunciation.
There is no doubt that the first recounting of the party experience has a certain intensity and immediacy about it, couched as it is in a kind of present tense, and had it been consciously chosen as the mode of expression over the alternative, the past tense, I would have no quarrel with it. But my experience is that many formally educated people nowadays could not formulate the alternative, and are trapped in a sort of groundhog day of the present tense to describe past events.
Of course some who are capable of the use of the past tense choose this mode because they believe it fashionable and streetwise to do so, but become insidiously locked into it way past its currency in the language of the young, rather as those who trendily adopted the rising interrogative inflection at the end of every statement in the 1980s and early 90’s - derived from Australian soaps - now sound hopelessly dated.
The most recent development is a gradual adoption of the American use of the conditional to describe the past - the use of would. To my ear, most Americans have now completely lost the ability to use the past tense. Perhaps this has been going on for far longer than I realised, but as I listen to the dialogue in old movies, I don’t hear many instances of it.
Here is an American reminiscing about his youth -
“In the 1950s, we would go down to Main Street, to the soda fountain and we would drink coke and crack wise for a few hours, then we would wind up at the local fleapit and we would watch sci-fi movies.”
We can conceive of this construction also being used by a British person, in that it tries to describe a typical, rather than a specific day, but in present day American usage this has effectively replaced any use of the past tense, and faced with the need to describe a past event, they seem forced to choose between the present tense or the use of would.
For example, in a typical American crime drama scenario, when a character is confronted by the accusation that a friend or relative has committed an offence, a typical response is “They wouldn’t do that …” It has now become unclear in many instances whether they meant “They didn’t do that …” or “It is not the kind of thing they would do …”
It is difficult to think of relevant examples off the cuff, and you must do your own research on film and television to find this kind of mode of expression, but believe me, there is plenty of it around. Again, does it matter? My answer is yes, it does if meaning and clarity are lost, or if it results in the speaker being stereotyped negatively as illiterate. And it clearly does matter of this spoken mode is transferred to the printed word, for example in a business communication or report. In legal documents, contracts, agreements, minutes of meetings, it matters crucially.
Every day I read and hear examples of language usage in the media by those who, by definition, are supposed to be professional communicators, making their living by the word, that obscure meaning, are subject to multiple interpretations, or are just plain wrong. It was not always so, because the new entrant - the young reporter, the neophyte presenter - had the benefit of the advice and guidance of older, more experienced and more literate colleagues and superiors who corrected their worst excesses and kept them on some kind of stylistic path.
But this breed of mentor has vanished, indeed the role of sub-editor seems to have all but disappeared in media. The examples of abuse are legion: arguments are refuted when they have only been rejected, not disproved by evidence: broadcasters use ironically when they mean coincidentally: enormity is used to mean magnitude: infer is used when what is meant is imply.
Does it matter? I think it does. I may infer that you are an illiterate asshole - that is my private judgment - but if I imply it, you may punch me on the nose. If I talk of the enormity of the total concert attendance at Celtic Connections, I appear to be implying a scale of awfulness, rather than rejoicing in a successful event, and I devalue the proper use of the word in describing the Holocaust, or the greed of the bankers, or the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel, or the horror of Iraq.
Or maybe I am just an old, self-educated, even half-educated pedant, fulminating against the present. I hope not, but you must judge …