Sunday, June 01, 2008

McCain Gets Tense

So McCain claimed that we have drawn American troops down to pre-surge levels. This is not true, nor will it be true soon.

When confronted with the error, McCain's campaign said that any criticism was simply quibbling over "verb tenses."

Verb tenses. Riiight.

Verb tenses of course are only grammatical details, and not really important. For example, the difference between the past tense (or in this case, the present perfect) and the future tense is really extremely pedantic.

What is the difference, for example, "I have paid you," and "I will pay you?" None that I can see. Only a schoolmarm, or a linguist like Noam Chomsky, could tell the difference.

What is the difference between "We have eaten," and "We will eat?" Between "I have left her for you," and "I will leave her for you?" Between "We have found a cure," and "We will find a cure?" It's really just a grammar thing, after all.

The difference between things that you have done and things that you will do, or might do, or would do, is ultimately only a grammatical detail. What do quibbles like that matter? (And while we're at it, what about the mathematical cavil in the complaint, with its third-grade, New-Math obsession with academic concepts like "more" and "less?")

If you want to say you have accomplished the mission, or won the war, is it really so different from saying that you will accomplish the mission, or that you will win the war, someday, if everything goes the way you plan?

What's catching McCain isn't just verb tense, of course. It's also something that pedants call grammatical mood: the difference between verbs used in the indicative mood (to describe the world as it is and is not), and the subjunctive mood (to describe the world as it is not, but might be, other under circumstances). But that's just academic trivia, really. English seldom makes the subjunctive distinction grammatically anymore, and we can all just go along using the indicative verbs for everything: things we have done, things we will do, things we would do if we had remembered our wallet, things we hope to do, things we actually did do except it was in a dream.

The election should not be about hairsplitting grammatical points such as the difference between what we have achieved and what we hope to achieve, or the difference between strategies that have succeeded and strategies that might, or the difference between people who have been killed and people who will be killed. It's time to leave schoolroom distinctions behind, and return our focus to the real world.

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