You use the present tense, you persuade people to save money

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We've had some discussion lately about the sports subjunctive/baseball conditional/bare paratactic conditional. I'm going to stay out of any naming controversies, but I do want to pick up on the fact that this construction typically involves using a present tense verb form to describe a future event. Like this:

We've also been discussing Keith Chen's controversial proposal that the grammatical marking of future tense leads to unwise spending and eating habits—allegedly, these behaviors are curtailed when the same form is used for both present and future time, since people are encouraged to perceive a stronger continuity between their present and future interests. (Commentary on the subject has been offered by Geoff Pullum, Mark Liberman and myself.)

It only seems right, then, to point out to proponents of Chen's hypothesis that perhaps they should consider that the construction in question offers some excellent potential for persuasive applications. You want to cut the deficit, you know how to address your colleagues in Congress. You want your patients to stop smoking, you avoid the future tense. You want to cut back on your credit card debt, you walk around talking like this all day.

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27 Comments »

  1. es said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    It sounds intimidating for sure.

  2. C Thornett said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    Isn't this form also related to the universal conditional form? (If water boils, it turns to steam. When it's cold you need a warm coat. In case of a gas leak, phone this number.)

  3. BZ said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    Somehow, I don't see tourists as generally being or going broke. What's the connection here?

  4. Mark F. said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    I thought what made it the "sports conditional" was its counterfactual nature. That may be another reason to oppose that term since it's really exactly the same construction just used in a different context. But still, there's a definite difference in how natural it appears to some people. I think constructions like the one in this post seem natural to a larger class of English speakers than "I'm a Muslim, I'm going to be offended by that" (or whatever the correct quote was).

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    The present tense might help, if Keith Chen is right, but why would the parataxis make a difference?

  6. GeorgeW said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    I was not aware of the 'sports conditional' until reading the recent posts here on the subject. Now, I can't concentrate on the game. I was watching a college basketball game the other night and it seemed that almost everything out of the announcer's mouth was of this type ("he makes the shot, they win the game")

    Language Log has ruined my sports fanship. Thanks a lot.

  7. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    @BZ
    Presumably the idea is that tourists shop at "tourist traps" which sell overpriced merchandise while the locals know where bargins are to be found.

  8. Rubrick said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    This sign calls to mind perhaps the most familiar of such usages, "You break it you bought it". That one's particularly interesting in that the second verb is in the past tense (though I've also heard "You break it you buy it").

  9. Ted said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    Rubrick: That's because the buying is deemed to have occurred prior to the breaking. Once you break it, you don't buy the broken bits (which aren't worth as much). Instead, you are very briefly transported back in time to buy the intact object, so that when you break it, it's already yours.

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

    The counterfactual issue is interesting. I don't think this construction is inherently counterfactual, and deixis seems to play a role in its interpretation. Compare full conditionals, where there's a correlation between tense (time deixis), time reference, and "factuality" (or some kind of modality). Consider

    a. If he had made the shot, they would have won

    The if-clause has past tense and time, and a counterfactual reading; the main clause needs the counterfactual would have). If you think if the if-clause as an irrealis context, you might say past + irrealis = counterfactual.

    b. If he makes the shot, they (will) win

    The if-clause has present tense, future time, and a "factual" reading; the main clause is either a simple present or has the "future" modal will. Present + irrealis = future?

    So when you translate this into the bare paratactic construction, you don't have the past tense option on either clause, but proximal/distal deixis still plays a role, though I think the implications aren't as strong:

    c. He makes that shot, they win the game. (like a above; distal + irrealis = counterfactual)
    d. He makes this shot, they win the game. (like b above; proximal + irrealis = future)

    So the proximal/distal distinction of this/that seems to play a role like the past/non-past tense distinction. So where the proximal/distal distinction is neutralized, as in

    e. He makes the shot, they win the game

    is it counterfactual or not? I think it's just unspecified. At any rate, I think there are fairly complex interpretive things at work here.

  11. Rod Johnson said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

    Geez, sorry for such a long post. I think this is relevant to Rubrick's buy/bought too, but I'll restrain myself.

  12. C Thornett said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 2:34 am

    My apologies, part of what I meant to say relating to persuasive texts is missing. The present/present forms are typically used for statements of general truth, advice and instructions, and persuasive texts often feature 'truthiness' to add force to their arguments or even to disguise their persuasive nature, aside from overt advice and instructions. Informal forms can also be an important feature of some persuasive texts.

    If it is true that sports commentary, especially live reporting, predominantly uses present forms, it's perhaps not surprising if this carries over into sports contexts (post- and pre-event analysis, counter-factuals) in which other forms would be expected in general speech.
    Or is this a particular informal register, not confined to sports, which prefers present forms where other registers prefer a greater range of verb forms?

  13. Oliver said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 2:53 am

    Did English ever have the possibility to form a condition simply shifting a plain verb? Like "Had he …",just "Break you it, you bought it"

  14. GeorgeW said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 6:32 am

    @Rod Johnson: It seems to me that the critical factor in interpreting the statement is the time of speech relative to the event.

    "He makes the shot, they win"

    1. Before the shot: A prediction. (If he does, they will)

    2. At the time of the shot: A factual statement (he does and they do)

    3. After the shot: A counterfactual (if he had, they would have)

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    It happens in Vegas, it stays in Vegas.

  16. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    I can't explain why, but of your three final examples, two work for me:

    > You want your patients to stop smoking, you avoid the future tense.
    > You want to cut back on your credit card debt, you walk around talking like this all day.

    but one really does not:

    > You want to cut the deficit, you know how to address your colleagues in Congress.

    [(js) Interesting. All are fine to my ear, but I have two guesses as to why you've singled out the one you have. It may be that you need a certain degree of syntactic parallelism in order for the parataxis to sound natural. But it's also worth noting that the third example you list is semantically different form the other two. The first two can be interpreted as straightforward conditionals which assert that if the first clause is true, then the second must be true as well. But in the other example, the first clause isn't really specifying the conditions under which the second must be true—presumably, the second clause is true regardless of the truth of the first. Instead, the role of the first clause is to highlight a circumstance that makes the second clause relevant. You might paraphrase it as something like this: "In a circumstance where you want to cut the deficit, I'm reminding you that you know how to address your colleagues."

    A classic example of this variety of conditional is:

    If you're hungry, there's food in the fridge.

    Here again, the food's in the fridge regardless of your state of hunger—but your state of hunger is what makes my talking about the contents of the fridge relevant.

    Incidentally, (and especially relevant to this post), the second clause in our deficit-cutting example isn't referring to a future event at all, unlike the other two cases. So, note:

    If you want your patients to stop smoking, you'll avoid the future tense.

    If you want to cut back on your credit card debt, you'll walk around talking like this all day.

    *If you want to cut the deficit, you'll know how to address your colleagues in Congress.
    (At least under the reading we've been discussing.)

    More on this can be found here.]

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    @Oliver: That was possible for the past tense, at least in poetry:

    "Aye, knew I how to hate thee, maid,
    I'd hate thee for I knew not what…"

    From here.

    There's probably a famous example from Shakespeare that I'm forgetting.

    (I assume you're not talking about "were I" and the like.)

  18. Not My Leg said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    You don't buy insurance, fire in the warehouse.

  19. Rod Johnson said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    @GeorgeW: exactly… so why does this not allow the past tense reading? (for me, at least)

  20. GeorgeW said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    @Rod Johnson: Hmm, I don't know. Even if said after the event?

  21. GeorgeW said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    @Rod Johnson: How about "He makes that (vs. the) shot, they win."

  22. Isaac said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

    I'm not sure why, but while these constructions make perfect sense to me, I have a tendency to associate them with movie gangster stereotypes, complete with outrageous Jersey accents. In other words I don't use them because of the register I associate them with, not because they sound ungrammatical (whatever that means).

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

    @GeorgeW: right, that's my (c) above. I think it only works as the past/counterfactual version.

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    @Isaac:
    That association could be caused more than somewhat by reading Damon Runyon (or perhaps seeing "Guys and Dolls").

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

    @Rod Johnson: "so why does this not allow the past tense reading? (for me, at least)"

    I knew the answer, I'd tell you.

  26. Carl said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    "I can't explain why, but of your three final examples, two work for me"

    Most of them don't work for me until I substitute "wanna" for "want to." "Want to" ruins the effect somehow.

  27. The Ridger said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    Just ran across this lovely example, describing the UNC loss:

    If we have Kendall and Dexter, it's a different story.

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