"I'm using that present tense but it's also past"

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Back in June, we unaccountably failed to cover a linguistic debate that took place in the House Committee on Government Reform of the United States Congress. Lurita Doan, the head of the General Services Administration, testified at length about the number, nature, and interpretation of tenses, aspects, and moods in English. Alternative views were expressed by representatives John Sarbanes (D-MD), John Yarmuth (D-KY), and Henry Waxman (D-CA).

But today, we get another shot at the story, because Ms. Doan is in the news again.

According David Stout, "White House Forces Out G.S.A. Chief", NYT, 5/1/2008:

Lurita A. Doan has been forced out as head of the General Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees billions of dollars in contracts and manages thousands of government-owned buildings.

In a stormy two-year tenure as the agency’s administrator, Ms. Doan was accused of improperly mixing government business with politics and of trying to steer government contracts to her friends. Democrats in Congress said she violated the Hatch Act, which makes it illegal for government employees to take action that could influence an election.

Ms. Doan’s resignation was requested by the White House on Tuesday and takes effect immediately, the agency said Wednesday. Ms. Doan said in a statement, “It has been a great privilege to serve our nation and a great president.”

Rather than relying on secondary sources, I decided to go back to the transcripts of Ms. Doan's discussion of tense, aspect and mood, which took place during a hearing (transcript here) of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on June 13, 2007. What I found was an entertaining illustration of the difficulties that intelligent and serious people have, these days, in analyzing the form and meaning of language, and in finding words to communicate and discuss such analysis.

Regular readers of Language Log will recognize this theme. For a small sample of other examples, see "Passive voice and bias in Reuters Headlines about Israelis and Palestinians", 12/17/2003; "Hey folks, 'passive voice' != 'vague about agency'", 5/31/2004; "Voice confused with tense at the Economist", 3/13/2006; "'Conditional tense' at the NYT", 4/8/2006; "How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 11/1/2006; "Subjective tense", 3/31/2008.

The committee chair, Rep. Waxman, began the hearing by describing the alleged Hatch Act violation:

As part of this investigation, six GSA political appointees were asked to give transcribed interviews or depositions to this committee. All six agreed to come before the committee voluntarily. And all six told us about a political presentation at GSA headquarters in January by Scott Jennings, Karl Rove's deputy at the White House. During that presentation, Mr. Jennings identified 20 Democratic members as targets in 2008. According to all six employees, Ms. Doan then asked the GSA political appointees gathered for the presentation how could they help "our candidates" in the upcoming elections.

Rep. Waxman also accused Doan of violating the Whistleblower Protection Act:

After the March 28th hearing, the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act, interviewed Ms. Doan about her conduct. When Ms. Doan was asked about the six GSA officials who cooperated with this committee's investigation, this is what Ms. Doan told the special counsel: quote, "There's not a single one of those who did not have somewhere in between a poor to totally inferior performance," end quote.

In her written testimony, Ms. Doan says that she thought her remarks were going to be treated confidentially by the Office of Special Counsel. In fact, she blames the special counsel for victimizing the employees by disclosing her disparaging comments.

Well, there are just two problems with Ms. Doan's position. First, her statements about her GSA colleagues appear to be false. Ms. Doan refused to provide the employees' personal records to this committee, but the Office of Special Counsel did review the employment records and found that all the employees had satisfactory or better performance.

It is wrong for a federal agency head to make false or misleading accusations against federal employees. It does not matter whether the official expects confidentiality or not. Unsubstantiated accusations are always wrong.

Second, Ms. Doan didn't just disparage the employees. Under oath, she told the special counsel, and again, I quote, "Until extensive rehabilitation of their performance occurs, they will not be getting promoted and will not be getting bonuses or special awards or anything of that nature," end quote.

During the committee's questions of Ms. Doan, Rep. Tierney asked "do you intend to hold back these people's bonuses or promotions?", and this enlightening exchange followed (emphasis added):

MS. DOAN: No. This is an inappropriate comment to have because we have to talk about the context in which it happened —
REP. TIERNEY: No, we're not going to go there again.
MS. DOAN: — and the tense.
REP. TIERNEY: I'm asking you —
REP. DAVIS: Mr. Chairman?
REP. TIERNEY: — do you intend —
MS. DOAN: There is only one place to go there.
REP. DAVIS: Mr. Chairman?
REP. TIERNEY: Mr. Chairman, would you please instruct the witness —
MS. DOAN: I will not have a —
REP. TIERNEY: — to be responsive?
REP. DAVIS: Mr. Chairman?
REP. WAXMAN: (Sounds gavel.)
REP. DAVIS: Mr. Chairman?
REP. WAXMAN: (Sounds gavel.)

After further discussion, the meaning of will comes back into focus:

REP. TIERNEY: Well, then why would you make a statement that they will not be getting promoted and they will not be getting bonuses and special awards? You seem to be pretty clear under oath there —
MS. DOAN: No, we were still in the —
REP. TIERNEY: — that you have an intention not to do something.
MS. DOAN: — area of supposition and conjecture in my mind.
REP. TIERNEY: The word "will" is supposition and conjecture — that they will not be getting promoted, they —
MS. DOAN: Actually, you may notice —
REP. TIERNEY: — will not be getting?
MS. DOAN: I noticed as I went through the transcript that I have probably some problems sometimes with tense, as well as with personal pronouns. So you'll see that there are some —
REP. TIERNEY: Let me suggest to you what the Office of Special Counsel thinks your problems are.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Yarmuth and Ms. Doan come back to the question of tense (and aspect and mood).

REP. YARMUTH: In relation to questioning that Mr. Tierney engaged in with you, you talked about this statement that you made — "Until extensive rehabilitation of their performance occurs, they will not be getting promoted and will not be getting bonuses or special awards or anything of that nature" — I have two questions.
One is that you said sometimes you have a problem with tense, and basically there are only three tenses.
MS. DOAN: That — no. That's not true. Okay, I'm —
REP. YARMUTH: Past, present and future.
MS. DOAN: No, there's like present perfective. There's present progressive, past progressive, past — (laughter) —
REP. YARMUTH: Yes, but in the time continuum — that's grammar — but in the time continuum, there are only — it either happened, it is happening, or it will happen.
MS. DOAN: Or it's ongoing as we talk.
REP. YARMUTH: I'm trying to get a handle on exactly where the issue of tense might relate to whether or not you actually were speculating about what you might do, what you may have in fact done, or what you were in the process of doing.
MS. DOAN: Well, I thought I was using like a hortatory subjunctive right there in which —

Ms. Doan has an M.A. in Renaissance Literature, and was in a PhD program when she shifted careers into defense contracting ("Securing the Homefront", Vassar Alumni Quarterly, Spring 2003). This was apparently enough for her to accumulate some grammatical terms, though not yet to learn what they mean.

There's some discussion about whether Ms. Doan actually had the bureaucratic power to retaliate against GSA employees who testified against her — she says she doesn't, but Rep. Yarmuth reads a statutory provision that seems to indicate that she does. Ms. Doan promises to look into it, and Rep. Waxman makes a confusing reference to popular culture:

MS. DOAN: No, I said — I thought I said I didn't — I wasn't aware of the code that he read to me, but I was happy to have heard it. We're going to look it up in its entirety.I also think that when I was talking to the investigators for the Office of the Special Counsel, we were still in the area of conjecture about —
REP. WAXMAN: No, no. I know you've already told us —

MS. DOAN: — how you do this.
REP. WAXMAN: — that you didn't — that that future tense sentence didn't mean it because you didn't know future tense or you know something about a hortatory something or other. God, I feel like Tony Soprano. (Laughs.)

This blatant attempt to associate grammatical confusion with the mafia was not disputed by the witness, whose loyalties lay elsewhere.

After considerable debate on other issues, Rep. Sarbanes tries to clarify the terminological issues, implicitly bringing the theory of indirect speech acts into the discussion:

REP. JOHN P. SARBANES (D-MD): I hope my mother's watching. She's a Latin teacher, and I'm just going to take issue with your citing of the hortatory subjunctive. (Laughter.) The actual tense that was used in the statement about will not be getting promoted and so forth, that is just clearly the future tense. It's not future perfect or future pluperfect or anything of that nature.
Actually, the best example of the use of hortatory subjunctive is the statement, how can we help our candidates?
REP. SARBANES: Because — yes. The hortatory subjunctive is used when you are exhorting people to do something, which is exactly what that statement was. That was an exhortation in the subjunctive tense, not using the word "let's" as it's usually seen, but using this other construction — how can we help our candidates? I just wanted to correct the record on that. We can debate it after, if you'd like.

There's more, but that's enough for now, especially because my breakfast hour is over.

Towards the end of the hearing, Rep. Waxman was moved to comment on his own verbal inflections:

Ms. Doan, I want to ask you about just conflicting statements that you seem to be making quite frequently.
And I'm using that present tense, but it's also past.

As this illustrates, the committee's jocular discussion blurs the distinctions between morphosyntax (facts about linguistic form), semantics (relations between language and the world), and pragmatics (how people use language to affect others). Rep. Yarmuth tries to clarify things ("that’s grammar — but in the time continuum, there are only — it either happened, it is happening, or it will happen") but the proceedings continue to confuse references to the form, meaning, and effect of her statements.

Given that the argument is about linguistic crimes — talking to GSA employees about political involvement, and talking to congressional investigators about career consequences for whistleblowers — this conceptual equivocation strikes me as a more serious problem than the superficial confusion about terminology.

As evidence that it's possible for vigorous and even vituperative political debate to aspire to a higher standard of meta-grammatical description, I draw your attention to the polemical exchanges in 1797 between William Cobbett (writing as "Peter Porcupine") and Noah Webster: "All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice", 10/13/2005.

Of course, behind the light-hearted dueling over grammatical terminology that no one at the hearing appeared to understand, everyone there was clear enough about what Ms. Doan said and what she meant. Still, pending educational reforms that will equip the bureaucrats and legislators of the future with the concepts and skills they need to discuss such things coherently, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform should hire Roger Shuy as a consultant on linguistic analysis and grammatical description.

[Tip of the hat to Dave Herman for drawing my attention to "When In Trouble, Blame The Hortatory Subjunctive", TPM, 6/13/2007.]


  1. brdo said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 5:29 am

    It is impossible for me to read this without being reminded of Bill Clinton's immortal statement "It depends on what the meaning of "is" is." Most people don't know the full context of that statement, and the astonishing level of chutzpah involved – it would be interesting to give it the same level of analysis, if you haven't already done so.

  2. Neal Zupancic said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 8:09 am

    The Tony Soprano remark probably refers to Tony's tendency to confuse the things his psychiatrist, financial advisers, and other educated associates say, often with the result of malapropisms or unintelligible sentences. One example was when he was told to invest in an inter-vivos trust, and he later told his wife that he wanted to invest his money in vitro. Waxman probably felt similarly confused using technical terms that he had no real handle on.

  3. Beth Wellington said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    LOL. Thanks!

  4. David in Brooklyn said,

    May 3, 2008 @ 7:20 pm

    The ability of bureaucrats to blow smoke will never stop leaving me awed.

  5. Tristan Mahr said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

    "“Until extensive rehabilitation of their performance occurs, they will not be getting promoted and will not be getting bonuses or special awards or anything of that nature.”

    So how would we describe this use of "will" here? Quoted in isolation like this, the statement says that certain events will not happen and continue to not happen until some other event occurs.

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