It's time

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I often have to point out that English grammar is not a settled body of dull doctrine, it's a live field of scientific investigation in which new facts are emerging all the time. So how long is it since I last learned something entirely new about the grammar of English? Oh, about… two minutes. In a press report about Al Franken's win in the Minnesota recount, I read that Franken said, "It's time that Minnesota, like every other state, has two senators." [See below for Ben Zimmer's observation that the AP report in which I read this was in fact departing, outside of the direct quotation marks, from what Franken actually said! It turns out not to matter for my purposes. The discovery in what follows is not about Franken.] That present tense on has struck me as odd. I would say It's time Minnesota had two senators. The idiom demands the preterite (simple past) tense in my variety of English. So I picked the random word sequence it's time everyone and Googled it, and I found that It's time everyone flies is a corporate motto of Cebu Airlines in the Philippines. And then, although instances of the preterite vastly outnumber cases of the present among the Google hits, I soon found it's time everyone understands and it's time everyone takes a moment on the ESPN site… It's already clear to me that people are starting to say It's time X does Y instead of It's time X did Y. That's not a major discovery; it's not especially important or interesting as far as I can yet see, because it doesn't relate to some descriptive thorny point or theoretical crux; but it's a brand new fact about English syntax that I had no inkling of when I woke up this morning.

[Added a bit later: Some of the comments below ask about why the preterite would be used, and others correctly identify the reason: the preterite tense in English is often used for what is called "modal remoteness" --- it takes us away from claiming something about the actual world. If she knows where I am right now is about whether she knows in this world; if she knew where I am right now is about what it would be like in an alternate world, unlike this one, a world in which she does know. With the verb be in the first or third person you can use the special form were for this purpose (if I were you), but for all other verbs you simply use the preterite.]



66 Comments

  1. .mau. said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    For a native speaker of Italian, that's odd.
    I would translate the sentence into Italian as "È ora che il Minnesota, come tutti gli altri stati, abbia due senatori", using a present subjunctive. Given that subjunctive in English is more or less a relic, I would have used present tense, since it's an action which should happen now, or maybe in a hopefully near future.
    Which is the rationale behind the use of the preterite?

  2. D. Sky Onosson said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    Interesting! I hadn't been aware of this, but are we sure that these mean exactly the same? Now that I think about it, I can produce both "It's time I had a look" and "It's time I have a look", but they might have slightly different implications about how quickly I intend to actually have a look. Anyone else have that sense?

  3. vic said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    In my dialect (Northern New York state), that would be "It's time that Minnesota, like every other state, have two senators." The use of has strikes me as very strange, while I tolerate had somewhat more readily. The subjunctive still lives, moribund though it be.

  4. boynamedsue said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    It would seem that the Cebu use is one coined by a second language speaker.

    Can that be said to be a valid example, or a case of L1 interference? There is a strong case to be made that second language speakers are starting to affect the English of L1 speakers, but that's a different matter.

  5. Michael said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    Since there's a lot of conversational writing out there on the web, google must be a linguist's dream come true. New to this blog but liking it a lot!

  6. concealed raisin said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    It's time Minnesota had two senators.

    Isn't this your (correct, I believe) usage of the past subjunctive? The sentence implies an uncertainty that is perfect for the subjunctive.

  7. concealed raisin said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    And to add to that, Franken's sentence implies certainty, as it is his conviction — though I'm still not sure I like the construction.

  8. Adam Roberts said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    I'd register disagreement with .mau. that 'the subjunctive in English is more or less a relic.' I still use it.

  9. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    Actually, it sounds like Franken used "had" instead of "has." See the clip here (about two and a half minutes in):

    Some media outlets quoted Franken correctly:

    But she's only one Senator. And it's time that Minnesota, like every other state, had two. (Hotline On Call)

    It’s time that Minnesota, like every other state had two [senators]. Minnesota Daily)

    But the Associated Press paraphrased Franken using "has":

    "It's time that Minnesota, like every other state," has two senators, a jovial Franken said outside his Minneapolis townhouse. (AP/NY Daily News)

  10. Philip Newton said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    Adam Roberts: does that mean that you would say, "It's time that Minnesota, like every other state, have two senators."?

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Some further journalistic examples:

    I think it's time we embrace a new expression in this TV Watch: NWDTJH. (Entertainment Weekly, 4/14/09)

    It's time the city of Millville takes action in correcting this problem so that local residents can live in the peace and quiet to which we are entitled. (Press of Atlantic City, 4/14/09)

    Perhaps it's time that T employees contribute toward some portion of their health benefit premiums. (Boston Globe, 4/13/09)

    It's time someone looks in those buildings. (Des Moines Register, 4/12/09)

    It's draft season, and it's time our teams wise up. (Pioneer Press, 3/30/09)

    (The last two appeared in headlines.)

  12. Robert Morris said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    "It's time that Minnesota have" sounds odd to me—I'd probably prefer had, but has sounds OK as well. But oddly, fly sounds better than flies in "It's time that everyone flies," although I'd probably pick flied before either. (One might think I'd prefer the "subjunctive" in both, but maybe Minnestoa is confusing the matter—if I replace it with some decidedly singular noun such as the octopus, then the present "subjunctive" have sounds fine.)

    In any case, I'd normally use the preterite, but I hear the present enough (as either indiciative or what remains of the subjunctive) to make almost any of these three sound grammatical in most cases.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    A couple of other examples from this morning's Google News:

    It's past time that this subject is brought up and discussed.
    It's past time you guys (bloggers) stop just cheering his every move and actually start holding this administration's feet to the fire.

  14. comwave said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    One more AP case, using "have" instead of "has" or "had";

    "It's time that Minnesota like every other state have two" senators, a jovial Franken said Monday night.

    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/M/MINNESOTA_SENATE?SITE=NYONI&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

  15. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    comwave: Yep, the version with "have" is the one that has been the most widely syndicated. I don't see the "has" paraphrase from the AP outside of the NY Daily News article I linked to above.

    But here's another local media outlet quoting Franken with "has":

    Amy Klobuchar is only one senator. It’s time that Minnesota — like every other state — has two. (Minnesota Independent)

  16. marie-lucie said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    Could the differences in reporting three different forms of the verb have to do with how old the transcribers/reporters (or editors) were, so that they either heard or substituted what they thought was correct?

    BZ, ML: Only the examples with third-person singular subject given above show a clear distinction between indicative and subjunctive, so examples with plural subjects only show that they are not in the past tense.

  17. comwave said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Oh, I had no idea of that. Thank you for comment.

    BTW, the three out of your cited "Some further journalistic examples" have "a 3rd party and plurar subject" and seem to have no difference from the one using "have" – I mean, in terms of "It's time (that) S V(bare)." Is there any difference between the AP one with "have" and the ones from Entertainment Weekly, Boston Globe, and Pioneer Press?

  18. Robert Coren said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    @Robert Morris:

    flied? Really?

  19. comwave said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    The video clip above shows that this is not from Al Franken because he used "had" as far as I hear. Many press media use different versions of "had." I wonder why this "had" is cited in two different kinds – has and have. "Have" is understandable when I think the modal "should" is omitted.(Even in that case, why did reporters write "have" when Franken is saying "had"?) Then, I am asking to myself; Is this a typo, a mis-hearing, or a "brand new fact about English syntax" as Prof. Pullum put it?

    [I pointed out that I soon found OTHER cases of present tense after "it's time". What Franken said DOESN'T MATTER now --- though it was apparently an AP reporter's altering of what he said that happened to alert me to this incipient change in English syntax. —GKP]

  20. comwave said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    Thank you, Professor. The comment I was talking to is gone. To make a story short, thank you once again for two measures.

    The question to myself above was from some experiences which perplexed me in between newly-developing linguistic changes and existing grammatical advices in the classes with my students.

    But it is fun to have the experiences, however perplexing they are. It was a great pleasure to read your post today.

  21. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    @ Robert Morris – "fly sounds better than flies in "It's time that everyone flies," although I'd probably pick flied"

    This just about gives me the opportunity to trot out the strapline the airline my father flew for in the 1960s (Kuwait Airways) once used: "Fly The Best Fly Ever Flew". For those who don't believe it, here's a scanned baggage label.

  22. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    I've just had a quick glance at all examples of "it's time that" in the COCA and the BNC and it does seem basically to be a British and American distinction. The Present is rarely seen in the BNC example but very, very common in the COCA examples (though the persistence of the present subjunctive in AmE somewhat clouds the matter). So common that it appears clear that what Pullum has discovered is not 'a brand new grammatical fact' but just another example of the recency illusion.

    [My phrase "brand new fact about English syntax that I had no inkling of when I woke up this morning" meant "brand new in my experience". The post is explicitly about the personal experience of discovering things one didn't know before, not about the very difficult business of dating the start of an incipient change. —GKP]

    I can produce both "It's time I had a look" and "It's time I have a look", but they might have slightly different implications about how quickly I intend to actually have a look. Anyone else have that sense?

    That's certainly what the theory says. The Past tense is used to express distance, either temporal, emotional, social or factual. A clear example of where the choice of verb form is affected by emotional distance is this example of reported speech. Two aid workers in a Land Rover are stopped by a man on the road. One of them speaks to the man and then is asked by his colleague "What did he say?". The aid worker can give two answers with exactly the same factual meaning:
    a) "He said he was starving."
    b) "He said he's starving."

    Which answer suggests he's most likely to be fed?

  23. Christian DiCanio said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    In the construction "It's time that X does/did Y", one might argue that the preterite is only used to indicate counterfactuality. Given the meaning of the expression, this certainly seems to be the case. Interestingly, there are many people who are unable to use the preterite in their dialects in a counterfactual sense.

    I am able to say, for instance, in the present, "If I went to Japan, I would visit Osaka." Here, the use of the preterite, instead of the subjunctive If I were to go to Japan…, indicates that the speaker does not believe he/she will go to Japan. The subjunctive does not carry this reading.

    However, I've encountered more than a few people for whom the use of the preterite is not possible in contexts like this. Now, couple this with the fact that the subjunctive (if it was ever truly a subjunctive) is going the way of the dodo in English and one is left with only one possible verb form in counterfactual contexts: the present.

    Now someone needs to test if there is a perfect intersection in those people who can only use the present in counterfactual contexts and those people who say "It's time X does Y." For now, it's just a hypothesis.

  24. Craig Russell said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    My first instinct was that I would use the (present) subjunctive "have", but, now that I think about it, this sounds odd–as do both of the other two. After mulling it over a bit, I have decided that I would never actually say this phrase without using "for" and an infinitive:

    It's time for Minnesota, like every other state, to have two senators.

    If we're keeping Franken's construction, the presence or absence of "that" makes a difference to me. "It's time Minnesota has two senators" sounds better to my ear than "It's time that Minnesota has two senators" for some reason, as if the "that" suggests a slightly older variety of English in which things like the subjunctive are more necessary.

    I'm not surprised that "has" is gaining on "had" though. You hear things like "it's important that all students are in their seats" all the time, when I would imagine that a hundred years ago (recency illusion?) this would require the subjunctive: "it's important that all students be in their seats."

  25. Michael said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    Stephen, I have never heard the case (b) you illustrate. Typically, the present indicative is never used in an indirect statement in which the main verb is perfect. The imperfect "was starving" here correctly identifies the starving as having occurred while the man spoke. Alternatively, a pluperfect "had been starving" would indicate that the starving had been in the past even back when the man spoke. Either way, these examples don't really represent the same structure as "It's time that X do/does/did Y."

    Personally, I understand the phrase either as a sort of idiomatic ellipsis, in which I interpret it as "It is time that X [should] do Y," or as a relative clause of characteristic describing the time. In the first case, obviously the conditional mood should be used, but since the "should" is omitted, this form is identical to the subjunctive; in the second case, clearly the subjunctive should be used. Hence, "It's time that Minnesota HAVE two senators," "It's time that he GO home," "It's time that I TAKE a nap."

    That said, I heard a perfect used frequently. This could of course be a perfect subjunctive (The only way to tell the difference is to distinguish "was" and "were"), but that still doesn't work out so well in my interpretation. It certainly could NOT be a perfect conditional.

    But in conversation, I essentially never hear the perfect, so I get the feeling that this is more of a British usage, and the present more of an American one.

  26. battlekow said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    @Robert Coren

    Maybe he's a baseball fan.

  27. Mr Punch said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    My instinct is the same as Craig's — "have," but with "for" on second thought. I find I have particular trouble with "had" because the "it's time" (reads present) appears to conflict with "had" (reads past).

  28. marie-lucie said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Where I live in Canada, it seems to me that most people would use should Verb for the old subjunctive, not the present. Only one person here mentioned it, so perhaps it is not so common in the US.

    I am also surprised that "If I went to Japan" is considered to be more counterfactual than "If I were to go to Japan". I would have thought it was the opposite. "It I were to go" seems to me to express an extremely remote possibility, while "If I went" corresponds to something not planned or considered at the moment but not out the question in the future.

  29. Mark F. said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    Michael — Google "proved that" (with the quotes) for examples of the present indicative being used in in indirect statement in which the main verb is perfect.

  30. Adrian said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    I find the use of the present odd here. For instance, how many people would say in the morning: "It's time I get up." instead of "It's time I got up."? And it's even odder if one uses "It's about time…"

    And then there's the vexed question of how to label the verb. It's the past tense form, but it's somewhat ridiculous to say one uses the past tense in the construction "It's time"+ finite verb. On the other hand, it's also incorrect to call it the subjunctive, even though that seems to be the function here.

  31. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    As Mark F says you will see myriad examples of reported speech where the backshifting doesn't occur. The backshifting is only used to express distance from the fact. In the case I gave it is emotional distance since the person involved is obviously still starving since he only spoke an instant ago. The backshifting suggests that the person views the statement as being encapsulated in the time the person spoke; the present tense indicates that he views the statement to be of present importance. Let's give you another example:

    a) In the budget the Chancellor said he was putting an extra 10p on the price of beer.
    b) In the budget the Chancellor said he is putting an extra 10p on the price of beer.

    Which of the two sentences is more likely to be said by a teetotaller?

    The fact that you can claim that you've never heard case b) suggests how strongly peoples recollections are influenced by what they think should be happening. In your case presumably at some stage in your education you'd been taught that you backshifted when the reporting verb is in the past, and ever since you have simply failed to register the numerous cases where this does not happen.

    Which I suspect is what has been happening to Geoff with the subject of this post.

  32. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    And then there's the vexed question of how to label the verb. It's the past tense form, but it's somewhat ridiculous to say one uses the past tense in the construction "It's time"+ finite verb.

    You're presuming that the core function of the past tense in English is to describe the past. It's not, although it is by far the most common use. The difference is not between past and present tenses but between distant and proximal tenses, or the distant form and the unmarked form if you prefer it that way.

    It can be distant in time, or distant socially, or distant emotionally, or distant factually. The fact that the subjunctive mood used to perform the last function and that it has now merged with the indicative confuses matters but you will find it much simpler if you consider all non-time distancing uses of the past tense as being part of the same phenomena.

    Remember that the purpose of tense is to convey the subjective attitude of the speaker towards the actions in question.

  33. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    With regard to *it's time I get up I would suggest that the counter-factuality is so obvious that there is no choice. Compare that to
    It's time we deal with this once and for all which contrasts in urgency or emotional nearness to It's time we dealt with this once and for all.

    I would submit that they are much likely to do the dealing with immediately in the first case than the second.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    The fact that you can claim that you've never heard case b) suggests how strongly peoples recollections are influenced by what they think should be happening. In your case presumably at some stage in your education you'd been taught that you backshifted when the reporting verb is in the past, and ever since you have simply failed to register the numerous cases where this does not happen.

    I don't think this is just an instance of the "recency illusion". It seems to me (a non-native speaker) that the use of tenses in English (and the further erosion of the already eroded subjunctive) has been shifting over the past decades, witness for instance the replacement of "had + past participle" by a plain preterite (something supposedly typical of North America), and the increased use of "would + verb" after "if" instead of the simple past. But there may be national or regional differences in the speed at which these various tendencies are becoming more common, so that GKP (England > California > Scotland) might genuinely not have encountered the use of the present instead of the past. I have, but not very often, and not from educated speakers.

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    I don't perceive much difference between "if I went" and "if I were to go", beyond a certain wistfulness in the latter form. It suggests a more richly-imagined counterfactual.

    "If I went to Japan, I'd take a power adapter". "If I were to go to Japan, I'd be sure to take time to visit Kyoto."

  36. Alex said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    You'd really say "if she knew where I am"?

    Shouldn't that be "if she knew where I was"?

  37. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    Do you have any statistical evidence for the replacement of the past perfect with the simple preterite, or for it being more common in AmE?

  38. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    You'd really say "if she knew where I am"?
    Shouldn't that be "if she knew where I was"?

    Google gives 5 hits to 1,590 here. But the results for "if she knew what I do/did' are less conclusive, 2 to 29.

    Now 'If she knew what she wants' is the title of a pop song by a group hitherto unknown to me called the Bangles. It has 117,000 google hits to a mere 8,800 for 'if she knew what she wanted.' 'If she knew what I want' gets zero hits compared to 14 for 'If she knew what I wanted.'

    The point of all this trivia is that it appears impossible to generalize.

  39. marie-lucie said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    SJ: Do you have any statistical evidence for the replacement of the past perfect with the simple preterite, or for it being more common in AmE?

    No, and I have not tried to investigate the matter formally, but the increasing disappearance of compound tenses (and especially the pluperfect) was pointed out to me as specifically North American a few years ago by a very careful observer from Australia (where this is apparently not done), and I have been paying more attention to it since. This use is not found in high-tone magazines or newspapers but does occur in less carefully written publications, and especially in actual quotes from the spontaneous, everyday speech of ordinary citizens. (As with other tendencies, this may vary from region to region as I mentioned above).

    For other anecdotal evidence, I used to teach French to anglophone Canadian students, and whereas it used to be that one could point out that the French plus-que-parfait (as in j'avais fait …) was exactly parallel to the English pluperfect (I had done…), over the years it became more and more difficult to use this analogy since most students were not using the pluperfect in their own English, either for contrast with the preterite to signal an earlier event (as only the preterite was used), or for the verb in an if sentence (where if I would have done is replacing if I had done…).

  40. Andrew said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

    a) In the budget the Chancellor said he was putting an extra 10p on the price of beer.
    b) In the budget the Chancellor said he is putting an extra 10p on the price of beer.
    Which of the two sentences is more likely to be said by a teetotaller?

    "More likely"? When I read that I was sure there was a statistical analysis to back up this ever so sweeping statement. I mean, I was sure there is a statistical analysis. Hmm, with present tense, it sounds funny to me. I want to be emotionally vested in this, but it sounds so wrong. What's wrong with me?

    Oh, wait. Present tense only means that I am asserting the state to hold of the current time, while the embedded past means I only assert about the time of the Chancellor's announcement (or some time before that). Of course the present tense sounds funny to me in my sentence— I don't know of any statistical analysis that indicates whether non-drinkers use embedded present tense more when talking about anti-alcohol measures than drinkers do. Or if I did, I could be implicating doubt by not asserting over the present. The latter you might say has an emotional distance to it, but the former?

    And of course the aid worker would use the present tense— if the guy says he's starving, and it's your job to help him eat, it's quite plausible you would say he is starving. I mean, what's the emotional difference between:

    c) That was Dad on the phone; he said he's at the supermarket.
    d) That was Dad on the phone; he said he was at the supermarket.

  41. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    The Bangles hitherto unknown to Mr. Jones? How can we preserve a common language without a common culture? I wonder if the functionally subjunctive-like use of past tense is related to the fact (or "fact" — my impressionistic sense not grounded in quantitative research) that the past subjunctive is materially less moribund than the present subjunctive. Consider that what we might call the "if I were a rich man" construction is understood by and even occasionally used by some reasonable fraction of contemporary speakers of American English, but it's pretty hard to find a natural-seeming contemporary use of "be" as the third person singular present subjunctive. The only instance I can summon out of my extensive personal corpus of '60's through '80's rock lyrics was public domain and archaic when recorded ("if he be a married man, then hanged he shall be, and if he be a single man, he shall marry thee"). The irony, of course, is that "to be" is I believe the only English verb where you can distinguish by inflection the subjunctive from indicative in the past tense (in first and third person singular), whereas in third person singular you ought to be able to distinguish subjunctive by inflection for virtually any verb in the at-death's-door present subjunctive. So how can we tell if a lot of these subjunctive-feeling uses of the past tense (for verbs other than "be") are past indicative rather than past subjunctive?

    One other point: the "he was starving" vs. "he's starving" contrast didn't really work for me because "he's" was ambiguous as between "he is" and "he was." See also "she's," "it's," "you're," and "they're" for common constructions where it's going to be hard to determine if the subjunctive-like use of the past tense is or is not being employed.

  42. Robert Morris said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    @Robert Coren (and others): haha, nope, I clearly meant "flew." Let's pretend I was thinking of baseball and that I am not going crazy.

  43. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    marie-lucie: it must be a regionally North American as you say since in my SAE people still readily use compound tenses even when in other dialects a simple tense would be more than adequate (which is to not even to get into the double and triple modals). For example, in reporting what I did yesterday, most dialects would prefer simple past, but SAE has a strong tendency to use past perfect: "I had gone to the store when I had got hungry and had bought myself …." (cf. "I went to the store when I got hungry and bought …")

  44. Andrew said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 12:09 am

    @J.W. Brewer,

    I think the only place you'd be likely to find it is embedded under certain verbs like require, move, be necessary, insist, demand: The law requires/demands that a defendant be conscious of any charges against him.

    Even that is falling out of use, though.

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 2:49 am

    @J.W. Brewer:

    "he's" was ambiguous as between "he is" and "he was."

    Are you suggesting that 'he's' can be a contraction of 'he was'? First time I've ever heard this.

  46. Stephen Jones said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 2:53 am

    There are plenty of present subjunctive examples with 'it's time that' in the American corpora (both the Time corpora and the COCA). Because the Time corpus has gone through copy editing we can't tell if the use of the indicative for the subjunctive was as common eighty years ago as it is now.

  47. .mau. said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    @Adam Roberts: were it for me :-), I would have said "It's time Minnesota have two senators." But I don't trust my knowledge of English language.

  48. Stephen Jones said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 4:23 am

    I don't know of any statistical analysis that indicates whether non-drinkers use embedded present tense more when talking about anti-alcohol measures than drinkers do.

    You're right; the statisitical sample is hopelessly flawed because I forgot to include in it teetotalers who hold shares in breweries.

    mean, what's the emotional difference between:
    c) That was Dad on the phone; he said he's at the supermarket.
    d) That was Dad on the phone; he said he was at the supermarket.

    I said the past tense is used to express distance, and that distance can be emotional as well as temporal, factual, or social. c) is suggesting that the fact that Dad is at the supermarket is of interest to the speaker or his audience; it is not leaving it embedded in the conversation (it also can have the additional purpose of clearing any ambiguity as to whether he's still in the supermarket, though the recency of the phone call makes that ambiguity unlikely).

    Let's take another case where we use the present tense to suggest increased involvement in the events. The 'historic present'. When we tell a story using the present, even though it clearly took place in a past time period that is now over, we are attempting to make events closer to us.

    Or take this example where we use the past tense to indicate social distance, that is to say the past is considered the politer form. A waiter mishears your order and asks you in the restaurant "I'm sorry. What was it you wanted?". He could equally have said "I'm sorry. What is it you want?' but the latter doesn't convey the same degree of politeness.

  49. Stephen Jones said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 5:31 am

    was pointed out to me as specifically North American a few years ago by a very careful observer from Australia (where this is apparently not done), and I have been paying more attention to it since

    The problem is that the confidence I have in your observations is the same I have in the observations of the Australian, Professor Pullum or myself, close to zero.

    Time and time again we find out that the 'observations' we and others have made and are sure of have no factual basis. Remember the claims that had to be retracted about the British being much more likely to use a plural with committee? The problem is that when we think of something we automatically notice it more. What your Australian friend has done in fact is pretty well ensure that your posterior observations will be worthless. You are now looking for all examples where the simple form is used instead of the perfect form, and of course you will see them all over the place. It's not that they are more common; it's that you didn't notice them before.

    With regard to the use of 'if + subj +would have' I have done a search on the COCA for 'if + pronoun + would have' and haven't found any evidence to suggest usage has been increasing from 1990-2007. As the COCA is a US database you may well be correct for the students you taught, or even for Canadian English in general, but there doesn't seem to be a recent trend.

    With regard to 'the disappearance of compound tenses (particularly the pluperfect) in American English there is another factor to bear in mind. It is possible that it has declined in formal and academic registers, for the simple reason that there may well have been a tendency for the formal registers to become less formal, and include constructions that have always been common in normal speech. At present we are very much lacking in data for informal speech for the first eighty years or so of the last century and so much of our analysis of language change depends on changes in the formal register, or even the changing preferences of copy editors over time. (On the other hand you claim to have noticed it more in informal speech; as we have limited data it will be hard to find evidence to back up or disprove that assumption).

    One interesting thing I have found out in looking into the past perfect v preterite use in American English is this. Using the 'Time Corpus' I searched for 'after + pronoun + had + past participle' and found 742 examples with a much greater prevalence in the 30s, 40s and 50s, than in the 70s, 80s and 90s. In other words apparent proof of marie-claire's claim. But when I searched for 'after + pronoun + preterite' I found 4,955 examples with exactly the same distribution over time as for the past perfect. It is possible that what we are seeing is not so much a substitution of the past perfect by the preterit as a decline in constructions where the past perfect could be used. On the other hand the COCA shows a decline for the period 1990-2004 with 392,345 and 286 hits respectively, whilst for the preterite construction the incidence remains stable (4203,4508, 4206). It is to be noticed however that the preterite construction has always been vastly more common than the construction with the Past Perfect.

  50. marie-lucie said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    SJ, I am a non-native speaker, meaning that I learned English consciously and am quite aware of what I was taught and what does not correspond to it, and I am also a linguist. I am not saying that my informal observations are equivalent to statistical evidence, and as I am not a specialist in English linguistics I am not planning to do more detailed research, but if no one has investigated the phenomenon they will sooner or later. I am not "searching for examples" of the simple past where I would expect the pluperfect (as you did), I notice them when I encounter them, which is mostly in actual speech (that I hear) or quoted informal speech (eg in newspapers and other relatively informal sources), or in other informal writing such as students' answers on quizzes, or email messages. My students' increasing difficulties with the French pluperfect (as opposed to difficulties one expects from differing structures in the two languages) are also part of the evidence pointing to the loss of the pluperfect. Altogether, let's say there is qualitative evidence which it would be worthwhile to try to test with quantitative evidence. That I am not planning to do so does not mean that it cannot or should not be done, and I hope someone else does it.

    You searched for tenses used after "after", which is often followed by the simple past anyway since the word itself is enough to indicate posteriority, and you did find that the pluperfect in this case was used more frequently in past decades. That is not the only place where the pluperfect could be used, and when you suggest "a decline in constructions where the pluperfect could be used", something has to replace those constructions in order to express the same content. For instance, the formal construction with inversion instead of "if" (as in "Had I known …") is rarely used in colloquial speech but its equivalent "If I had known …" also uses the pluperfect. But in current speech (at least where I live in Canada) "If I knew …" or "If I would have known" are both very common, especially among less-educated people. I would think that "If I would have known" is more frowned upon than "If I knew …" which after all is standard with a non-past meaning and therefore would not be picked up by a computerized search unless you added an adverb: "If I knew now …" (standard) vs "If I knew then/at the time …" (newer, replacing "If I had known …"). "If I would have known …" then would be much less likely to occur in written sources, and the search you did for this construction covered a much shorter and recent period than for the pluperfect after "after" (again, not the only or even most common use of the pluperfect).

  51. Ricardo Fernandez said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    "It's time that Minnesota…have…" is what the standard English subjunctive calls for. The substitution of "had" is the more common usage today, but "had" in this instance has the function of an alternate subjunctive: while not linguistically logical in reverting to a past tense, it wrenches the situation away from the descriptive present, which it is not.

    To the poster who finds "have" to sound odd: it sounds odd only to ears that have no command of the subjunctive or have succombed to the flattening use of the present indicative. Another poster objects that the subjunctive is not dead in English because he uses it–good for him!–but that is not a reflection of its currency: if not dead, it is dying. This is a shame, for language loses depth and nuance in losing the ability to convey a conditional or future circumstance, an uncertainty; and reducing its means to the merely descriptive now.

    Some L1 speakers betray this need, or desire, for the subjunctive in devising an alternate construction that avoids the snobby connotation of the subjunctive "have" and goes right past the generalized simple preterite "had": "It's time that Minnesota…SHOULD have…"

    Finally, a poster who states that his native language is Italian, notes that the natural translation into Italian would call for the subjunctive. This is also true of Spanish: "Es hora de que Minnesota…tenga" not "tiene." And it is true even in French, in which the subjunctive has been weakened considerably (the verb would be "aie" rather than "a"). In fact, the insistence of those of us who have another first language on the over-correct use of the subjunctive in English arises from a logical impulse in our native tongues: the switch from the subjunctive mood of "it's time" (something conditioned on an action and therefore in the future) to the use of the present indicative verb "has" is jarring. It is nothing less than aberrant logic.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    In French, the verb in the subjunctive would be ait (3rd person singular) rather than aie (1st person singula). Il est temps que le Minnesota ait deux sénateurs.

    Otherwise I fully agree with the Italian and Spanish commenters.

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    Contra R. Fernandez, I think I'm about as well-educated and hoity-toity and reactionary and archaism-appreciating a native speaker of American English as one could hope to find, and to boot whiled away my youth studying various dead languages with flourishing (as flourishing as dead can be . . .) subjunctives. But the present subjunctive "have" still sounds a little bit odd to my ear in this context — not incomprehensible, but, once parsed, a touch affected and archaic. I might mourn this — temperamentally I'd be happy for the language to have a flourishing subjunctive and why not an optative while we're at it — but my ear thinks the present subjunctive (at least in that context, maybe not in others) has largely already "succombed."

    However, maybe there's a particular oddity or parsing difficulty with the specific example here, because "have" would be just the right choice in the infinitival construction "It's time for Minnesota to have two Senators," which seems an obvious syntactic alternative for making the same point. If "had" is for better or worse empirically more likely than "have" (or "has") in the "time that" construction, using "have" there may create some momentary subliminal confusion while ones processing equipment tries to reconstruct if it was "time that" or "time for" that was just said.

  54. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    It's time someone responded to the example given in Nicholas Waller's comment: "Fly The Best Fly Ever Flew", even though it's got nothing to do with constructions after "It's time".

    I think "Fly The Best Fly Ever Flew" is perfectly good English. Years ago when we had a pet budgerigar we would take him out of his cage now and then for "a good fly". The omission of the relative pronoun "That" before "Ever Flew" seems quite acceptable to me.

    But perhaps we're meant to understand the personal pronoun "You" before "Ever Flew". In that case, yes, the omission does strike me as a bit odd.

  55. Ellen said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    @Ricardo: The presense or absense of "that" makes a difference to what sounds right.

  56. Stephen Jones said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    Marie-lucie, the problem with 'noticing examples as you encounter them' is that you have no way of telling if there has been an increase since you weren't keyed up to notice them before.

    I did find in the Time Corpus a decline in the use of the pluperfect but as there was an equivalent decline in the use of the preterite after 'after' that does not back up your thesis at all but quite the opposite. In fact the decline is in the number of words in Time Magazine, it has become very much less verbose over the years.

    I am not denying grammar change happens. What I am saying is that the only way of finding out is by a quantitative analysis. Our intuitions are quite unreliable in that regard. At best they can give us some idea what to look for.

    My intuition tells me there has been an increase of 'there's' + plural nouns, and also an increase in 'between you and I'. However until there is enough raw material to make a statistical analysis of all genres over time I am just guessing.

  57. marie-lucie said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

    SJ: "the problem with 'noticing examples as you encounter them' is that you have no way of telling if there has been an increase since you weren't keyed up to notice them before."

    My point is that when I came to the US and Canada (now decades ago) I noticed many things that I had not been taught before. For years I hear the pluperfect where I would have used it in French also. Its replacement by the preterite would have struck me much earlier if it had been in common use at that time. Teaching students the French pluperfect should have become easier as I gained experience and learned pedagogical tricks, but instead it became harder as the students themselves were not using the English pluperfect. These observations came much earlier than being told that this was an American phenomenon, a remark which increased my attention to the point but did not initiate it.

    "I did find in the Time Corpus a decline in the use of the pluperfect but … there was an equivalent decline in the use of the preterite after 'after'"

    If there was a decline in the use of both tenses, what kind of past tense form were people using after "after"?? Or are you saying that another word was used instead of "after"? For instance, "once" or "since"? In that case, a search can be made for the use of the relevant tenses.

    "Our intuitions are quite unreliable in that regard." Intuitions are not quite the same as observations.

    "At best they can give us some idea what to look for." Our observations can point us into the right direction. When several independent observations of different kinds point into the same direction, there is a better chance that the convergence is not a coincidence and that it is worth investigating.

    I hope that someone is or will be investigating the validity of these and similar observations, considering data from different areas and from whole decades, and also from different types of oral and written documentation.

  58. Stephen Jones said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 5:42 am

    As I said, the decline in the Time Corpus seems to be simply that there are less words per edition than there used to be. The Pluperfect is probably being replaced by a picture!

    To the best of my knowledge the pluperfect is obligatory in French in many situations where in English it would be optional. With regard to teaching the pluperfect in French becoming harder, it could be the result of a change to reliance on the spoken form instead of the written form. The spoken form is nearly always elided.

    With regard to your claim that it is American rather than British, I have checked the frequency of 'after + pron + had + p.p.' versus 'after + pron + preterite' in both the BNC and COCA. The percentage of past perfects to preterites is double in British English (669 to 3,742) to what it is in American English (1,228 to 16,100) which suggests the British prefer the compound tense, though you would have to do more research to ensure that the different proportion of distinct registers in the source material does not skew the results. I will leave that to you anyway. The corpora are provided free courtesy of Mark Davies of Brigham Young University (a true linguist's Latter Day Saint) at http://corpus.byu.edu

  59. marie-lucie said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 6:47 am

    SJ:

    the pluperfect is obligatory in French in many situations where in English it would be optional. Yes.

    With regard to teaching the pluperfect in French becoming harder, it could be the result of a change to reliance on the spoken form instead of the written form. The spoken form is nearly always elided.

    You mean, as in "I'd wanted" rather than the full "I had wanted". But this does not work with verbs where the preterite and past participle are different, like "I knew" vs "I'd known", "I went" vs "I'd gone", etc. The irregular ones are relatively few but they are all very common (although some people are regularizing with just one form, as in "If I would have went"). On the other hand, you may have a point since "I'd" could be seen as ambiguous between "I had" and "I would", ignoring the fact that one has a participle and the other an infinitive (only a few forms like "I'd hit" would be ambiguous, but no more than with present and past).

    With regard to your claim that it is American rather than British : I didn't say anything about British English as I have little contact with it, only that my Australian friend suggested that this usage was American (and it is Canadian also), as it does not seem to occur (or much less if it does) in Australia.

    Thank you for providing the address for the corpus, but as I wrote before, I hope someone else is inspired to undertake the detailed research.

  60. Szwagier said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    "Fly the best fly ever flew" sounds wrong to me, but perhaps that's because I'm a BrE speaker. I would much prefer "Fly the best fly ever flown" where either "that's" or "you've" would have been omitted.

    Or am I missing something?

  61. brad johnston said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

    How do I send an email to Geoff Pullum?

    [(myl) Try Google. Type his name, two clicks, and the information is yours. If you can't manage that, I'm afraid that he probably doesn't want to hear from you. ]

  62. Stephen Jones said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    How do I send an email to Geoff Pullum?

    You can get it from clicking on the link on the language log home page and following it through. It requires three clicks. It appears he has a separate email address for Language Log correspondence.

    Now perhaps Liberman can solve the $64,000 question. How does one get John McWhorter's email?

  63. Stephen Jones said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    The post is explicitly about the personal experience of discovering things one didn't know before, not about the very difficult business of dating the start of an incipient change.

    It's already clear to me that people are starting to say It's time X does Y instead of It's time X did Y

    Do I detect some inconsistency here?

    Incidentally you have missed out one possibility, which is that people are saying It's time X does Y instead of It's time X do why.

  64. Richard Sabey said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 4:45 am

    @Simon Cauchi:

    The relative pronoun here is the subject of the relative clause. Omitting a relative pronoun that is the subject of the relative clause but keeping the verb of that clause is not standard, though it does occur, e.g.

    "There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
    That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream" [Hamlet, 4.7.166]

  65. Brittany M. said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    I am from Michigan and I think "It's time that Minnesota, like every other state, has two senators" makes perfect sense. I don’t really get why I would make the “has” into “had”. If Minnesota had just received two senators then, yes, "It's time that Minnesota, like every other state, had two senators" would make perfect sense. But in talking about something that has yet to happen, “has” still seems to fit best. I would equate it to saying “it is time they get two senators” not “it is time they got two senators”, both could make sense but in its context the present tense seems to fit best. I could even work with a “have” in place of “has” because it still seems like they are both working with the present tense. But “had” in this sentence does not work for me.

  66. Chas Belov said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 6:22 am

    I also note the phrase "Let's went." which I and friends used in my teens in Western Pennsylvania. It had the specific sense that we should already have left.

    I see it turns up here and there in a Google search for "let's went" although it is frequently in reference to a song by that name and occasionally as a (presumably wrong) answer in multiple choice quizzes.

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