Thursday, March 7, 2013

Not so simple

The simple present tense has probably ruined more lives than all the wars in human history put together.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much, in my opinion.

I was sitting in a darkened room one morning at work, watching a safety video, when a simple slide appeared on the screen, bearing just the words “TIME DOES NOT HEAL ALL WOUNDS”. The slide lingered for a while, and was then followed by video of a recently widowed lady who elaborated on it. “The saying ‘Time heals all wounds’ is a lie”, she said, with some bitterness. “It has been repeated over and over again by people who probably never lost anybody in their lives”.

Setting aside the specific circumstances of the incident that was the subject of the video, it reminded me of something I’ve felt strongly and often. The adage “Time heals all wounds” is but one example of things we phrase in the simple present tense. Digging deep into my memory of elementary school grammar, I recall these forms of the present tense in the English language:
-       Simple present: to indicate actions that happen habitually. Teflon writes for this blog.
-       Present continuous: to indicate an action in progress at the present moment. I am composing a post for this blog.
-       Present perfect: indicates an action that has just completed. I have described two of the present tenses. (I could never understand why this wasn’t a past tense).
-       Present perfect continuous: refers to the recently completed portion of an activity still in progress. I have been waiting outside in this freezing weather for two hours now.

Now, English, this royally ridiculous and recalcitrant language, also permits usage of the simple present tense to indicate future events (my flight leaves tomorrow). But let us ignore that for now. Consider expressions we commonly use in the simple present tense:
  • The sun rises in the east.
  • He leaves for work at 8 o’clock every day.
  • Stores in North Carolina run out of bread and milk at the slightest hint of snow.
So far, so good. They range from the irrefutable to the fairly evident. Now check these out:
  • Johnny takes forever to eat his meals.
  • Little Eva does her homework at the last minute.
  • Kamran gets angry if anyone mentions his past failures.
I don’t know if you can feel the incline as we descend the proverbial slippery slope. Take something that has happened a handful of times, slap the simple present tense on it, and voila – you’ve created a monster! Henceforth, Johnny will be met at mealtimes with irritation and resignation, Eva will associate homework with tension and pressure, and a wall of resentment will be quickly erected in Kamran’s home. Solutions to those issues will now require swimming against the strong tide of the simple present.

Now, if you are following this carefully, you will notice that it’s not the fault of the simple present construction itself, but merely of the insufficient awareness that uses it. For you can use the same thing to great effect in the opposite way. Seize upon the merest evidence of improvement or desirable behavior, install it on the broad shoulders of the simple present tense, and you can carry it to any extent you wish.

Couple this deceptive power of the simple present tense with a weakness for oversimplification, mindless repetition, and pontification, and you have the full-blown tragedy I referred to in the beginning of this post. Growing up, you may have heard a variety of grown-ups spout a number of adages and axioms, almost always in the simple present tense. Consider some common ones:
  • Fortune favors the brave.
  • Discretion is the better part of valor.

  • He who hesitates is lost.
  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • It is better to be safe than sorry.
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence (the opening line of a long quote from President Calvin Coolidge).
  • If you can’t beat em, join em.
  • No man can serve two masters.
  • You gotta be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. 
Enough to scramble the brains of impressionable youngsters, don’t you think? We have made an imperceptible transition from descriptive to prescriptive, from purportedly observing reality to unwittingly shaping it. The power of language over our lives is seldom examined, and hence rarely understood. What I have found is that increased awareness of language, and more precision in its use, can bring enhanced power and peace in our lives.

P.S. Back to “Time heals all wounds”. How could we rephrase it so it would be both accurate and responsible? Time heals some wounds ? Time may heal some wounds, in some people, sometimes? You can see how it’s not nearly as snappy as the original, nor as easy to appear comforting or wise with it.

1 comment:

  1. Sree, I love this post.

    It's amazing how the simple and seemingly innocuous things we do can have the greatest impact and that the connection between cause and effect can be so difficult to discern.

    This may be peculiar to english, but, outside the imperative, when we use the simple present tense it's as though there were an implied "always" or "never", even if the speaker didn't intend it. "Always" and "never" are two pretty significant words, specially when uttered by someone respected or in charge.

    Combine that with the "you know what they say" factor, and you've got some pretty potent stuff. When well timed, one can levy an indictment at someone without ever having mentioned them. Someone does something you don't like and you say, "You know what they say about people who..."

    The most devious part is that a simple present tense statement can bait you into an argument where you don't agree with either side. For example, "Time heals all wounds" begs a debate as to time's healing capacity (does it heal all wounds, some wounds, only a few) when in fact, it's not time that does the healing.

    So, I'd probably rephrase "Time heals all wounds" to something like, "Tomorrow is another day."


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