Sunday, May 23, 2004

Lessons from Bremner

This is the fifth lesson from a DVD of editor extraordinaire John Bremner. Click here for the first, second, third and fourth.

Bremner is going through a sentence on his editing test.
4. He claimed he knows a star athalete who will sign with the school.

BREMNER: I don't use claimed as a verb unless I'm using it in the context of an assertion, of a legal right or title. I would say "said" in this context. He's not claiming a right or title.

He said he knew, sequence of tenses. Now, a lot of people preach about sequence of tenses but don't follow the sequence of tenses. I don't know, I still teach it. To me, it makes sense.

I don't feel well. "What'd he say?" He said he didn't feel well. I'm speaking: I don't feel well. "What did he say?" He said he didn't feel well. You automatically change present to past when the controlling verb is said, when the controlling verb is a verb in the past tense, not present tense. He says he doesn't feel well. He said he didn't feel well.

I will go to Florida -- please, God -- in a couple of weeks. "What'd he say?" He said he would go to Florida. Change future to conditional.

I've been here only 24 hours. "What'd he say?'" He said he had been here only 24 hours. Change perfect to past perfect.
This lesson so resonates with me, and I was never even taught sequence of tenses in college. But it makes so much sense. Why are so many desks dropping this rule?

Does anyone out there still change sequence of tenses? Espcially with "said"?

(And, yes, athlete is spelled athalete in the test, and he doesn't mention it here. But the DVD only gives excerpts of his lesson. I am sure he mentioned it, just not here.)


At 5:10 PM, May 23, 2004, Blogger Bill said...

Paul Martin, writing in the Wall Street Journal's Style & Substance newsletter, offered a good explanation of why it's not a good idea to follow the sequence of tenses in newspaper journalism:

"Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. was ready to devote more energy to 'push' and 'prod' the Israelis and Palestinians toward a resumption of peace talks," we said. Rob Rossi on the National Desk asks whether, in such dependent clauses, we shouldn't use the present tense: " ready to devote more energy...," giving a more current or forward-looking slant to the action. Well, purist pundits of the traditional "sequence of tenses" rules would say it was correct as printed--you use past time in the dependent clause after the past-tense "said," except when the dependent clause states a timeless truth: "He said the Earth revolves around the sun." But in a daily newspaper like ours (where we also commonly use the present-tense "says" instead of "said" in feature articles), the present-tense verb in the dependent clause is less stilted and confusing, and we prefer it, at least when the spoken words are unlikely to be inaccurate tomorrow, in print. When we say, for example, "President Bush said he plans to spend Christmas at the Texas ranch," we convey the idea that this is a continuing plan. If we say, however, that President Bush "said he planned to spend Christmas at the ranch," we may lead the reader to wonder whether that original plan is no longer in effect.

At 5:29 PM, May 23, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

But wouldn't that be adequately represented by "The U.S. had been ready to devote more energy" or Bush "said he had planned to spend Christmas"?

Also, if it's that important to convey continuing plans, why not use "says." The purists will balk, yes, but they balk at ignoring the sequence of tenses, too. I think keeping it all present tense is more elegant.

I almost completely ignore sequence of tenses when I'm editing. But I wish I didn't have to.

At 9:49 PM, May 23, 2004, Blogger Bill said...

It's easy enough to convey that you're definitely talking about a situation that is no longer continuing, but the trick is dealing with the ambiguity when you follow the sequence of tenses and you're not talking about such a situation.

The biggest problem, though, is something Martin doesn't mention. It's virtually impossible to faithfully follow the sequence of tenses. The contingencies and complications we have to convey just get too complex. Israel said it WOULD pull out of the Gaza Strip if the Palestinians WEREN'T planning to attend a meeting of murderous thugs that WAS scheduled for Thursday.

Probably not the best example, but you know what I'm trying to say.

At 12:32 AM, May 24, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

So would you support generally following sequence of tenses unless it hurts readability? Or just throw it out the window altogether?

At 10:57 AM, May 24, 2004, Blogger Nick said...

I think "sequence of tenses" should just be replaced by common sense: What is really meant? And what tense best conveys that?

We'll get a lot of writers who'll write something like this: "Sen. Sally Smith said the bill is still in committee." Well, when Smith made that statement, the bill WAS in committee. Who knows if it still is? Common sense, not blind adherence to sequence of tenses.

In Bill's example, I think there are lots of reasons to choose tenses other than present, without regard to sequence of tenses: "Israel said it WOULD (conditional, jibing with 'if' clause that follows) pull out of the Gaza Strip if the Palestinians WEREN'T (subjunctive) planning to attend a meeting of murderous thugs that IS (likely still true) scheduled for Thursday."

At 3:20 PM, May 24, 2004, Blogger Bill said...

Throw the sequence of tenses out altogether in newspaper writing. Too many sentences start with "(s)he said"; to demand that everything that follows be in the past tense robs us of the ability to convey what's past and what's present.

At 10:06 PM, May 24, 2004, Blogger Nick said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:06 PM, May 24, 2004, Blogger Nick said...

Hear, hear!

At 1:00 PM, May 25, 2004, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Pardon me for coming a little late to the party, but let me chime in: I think the problem with sequence of tenses is shown inherently in the example Bremner uses. "He said he knew a star athlete who would sign with the school." Does he still know him? Will he still sign? I think the previous comments that it must be a common-sense reading based on current context are right on. A classic example: She said communism was evil. Write that in the 1950s and you open the question of whether the person no longer thought it was evil. She said communism is evil makes more sense. Write it now with the past tense, and it works fine. The book Working with Words has a fine dissection of all this.


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