The Word

Past tension

How well do verbs need to get along? Plus, a sorted affair

(Globe staff photo illustration)
By Jan Freeman
June 5, 2011

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In April, The New York Times reported the unforeseen effects of an outdoor art exhibit in Los Angeles: “The police said the show has prompted a rash of graffiti in the area.”

Do you see a grammar problem there? How about here (from a story last month): “Dr. Bauman said he has been prescribing a generic form of bimatoprost, the active ingredient in Latisse, to combat hair loss since 2007.”

Maybe my editing muscles have atrophied, but I read both those sentences without a quiver or qualm. Not so Philip B. Corbett, who writes the Times’s weekly After Deadline blog, a roundup of style and usage observations: According to him, both sentences stumble over “sequence of tenses” rules.

As you may or may not have heard at school, the conventions of English call for “backshifting” the tense of a subordinate-clause verb so it plays well with the main verb. An earlier Times grammar maven, Theodore Bernstein, explained it in “The Careful Writer” almost half a century ago: In the “normal sequence,” the present-tense “He says he is hungry” becomes past tense “He said he was hungry” (whether or not he still is).

Following this guideline, we should indeed write “police said the show had prompted a rash of graffiti” and “Dr. Bauman said he had been prescribing a generic form of bimatoprost”: Past-tense main verbs take past perfect subordinate verbs. And often we do use that pattern. But the rule has exceptions, and they’re far from rare.

For one, the subordinate-clause verb can stay in the present tense when its assertion “is a timeless truth, or is characteristic, or is habitual,” wrote Bernstein: “The child did not know that dogs bite.”

“There are exceptions even to these exceptions,” Bernstein went on, cases where “the normal sequence is irresistible.” We’ll say “I didn’t know you went to Tufts” even to a current student, and asking “When did she tell you she was engaged?” doesn’t imply that she no longer is.

Some over-logical people argue that the facts should govern the verbs, so that every still-true proposition would be in the present — “I didn’t know you speak Italian.” But that’s not the standard procedure; it’s what H.W. Fowler called the “vivid sequence,” precisely because it stands out.

Then there’s the redundancy exception to the rules. Since the past perfect is used to show which event came first — “he said [in our interview] he had been [from an earlier time] prescribing” — it becomes superfluous, said Bernstein, when some other clue to the time frame is already present. Since Dr. Bauman “said he has been prescribing...since 2007,” there’s no need to underline it with “had been prescribing.”

Life would be easier for journalists if news style didn’t demand that past tense “he said.” In real life (and some journalism) we don’t say “My doctor said vitamin D is (or was) a good idea”; it’s “my doctor says,” implying a generalization uttered in the recent past.

But even a strange sequence of tenses is usually decipherable. Given the complexity of the rules and exceptions, there’s no hope of imposing consistency; it’s probably simpler just to keep on muddling through.

. . .

SORTING IT OUT: “Time for someone to call for an inquiry into his sorted affairs,” a reader commented on a recent blog report discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bad behavior. That “sorted affairs” could be just a misspelling of “sordid,” or it could be what linguists label an eggcorn: a word or phrase modified from its original form but reanalyzed so it still makes a kind of sense.

When this sorted was added to the online Eggcorn Database in 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky suggested that people might take sorted to mean “of various sorts, varied,” as if it were short for “assorted.” In fact, sordid is not so benign; it can mean “filthy” or “immoral” or “squalid,” depending on what it describes. And in news reports, sordid has a sexual context in at least one-third of its uses.

Some eggcorns come to rival, or even displace, the original forms — shoe-in (for shoo-in) and butt-naked (for buck naked) are coming on strong — but sorted affair is not yet a challenge to the standard sordid. Meanwhile, an entirely different sense of sorted is coming our way, one that might block the progress of the eggcorny coinage. In Britain, over the past few decades, sorted has become a slangy adjective meaning “fixed, arranged, organized.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, from 1982: “My life is pretty well sorted.”

So I wasn’t surprised to find websites for companies named things like Sorted Affairs and My Sorted Affair — wedding planners, home stagers, organizers. But I was surprised to find them based in these United States. Americans aren’t yet saying “we’ll get you sorted,” after all. And though we do use affairs to mean concerns or pursuits — we “put our affairs in order” — a “sordid affair” generally implies illicit sex. Sorted Affairs might fly as the name of an English enterprise, but I wonder how it works in Minnesota.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (