Thursday, April 15, 2004

The Case of the Vanishing Tenses

Ruth Walker of Verbal Energy has a great post about disappearing tenses. Everything seems to be in the now these days.

She tells of a weatherman who says, "Thursday it rains."
Not, "Rain is predicted," not "it should rain," not even the concise but bold prediction, "it will rain." No. "Thursday it rains."

Welcome to the 24/7 news cycle. Who needs a future tense? After all, the guy said "Thursday."
But it's not just the future that's disappearing. It's the past, too. Consider ubiquitous present-tense headlines. (She points to this, showing that for people who aren't native English speakers, headlines might as well be a language unto itself. She also directs to this study showing that in headlines there is "the suppression of spatial and particularly temporal markers." Yeah.)

What about the old style of using imperatives in heads, such as "Fire Police Chief"?
Possibly these were understood as variations on the passive voice still common today ("Police Chief Fired"). But their potential for misinterpretation would seem to have been considerable. Imagine, for instance, to describe exuberant behavior by college students on break, a headline reading "Paint the Town Red," with a subhead, "And Then Set It Ablaze."
Still, I'd rather use a present-tense verb than no verb at all.

>Getting into tense situations [Verbal Energy]
>Newspaper Headlines [Learning English]
>Discourse analysis of newspaper headlines [University of Sydney]
>Verbs? Not needing them [A Capital Idea]


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