Sunday, August 12, 2007

Imperfect Tenses
Another howler from the Straits Times (09.08.07), one of several that day — and nothing unusual.

In the caption, the past perfect is wrong:

Chng had carjacked this Premier taxi early Tuesday morning and sped off, but died when the vehicle hit a brick wall.

In Standard English, where there is a specific time expression (here, early Tuesday morning), the simple past is preferred:

Chng carjacked this Premier taxi early Tuesday morning and sped off, but died when the vehicle hit a brick wall.

The past perfect would have been needed only if the later events were told first, then the earlier ones: Chng died in this Premier taxi when it hit a brick wall early Tuesday morning. He had earlier carjacked the vehicle.

When events are retold in chronological order, they are usually expressed one after another in the simple past. For that reason, we don’t tell stories like this:

Once upon a time, there had lived (wrong) a beautiful princess in a castle far, far away. One day, she was walking in the woods when an ogre suddenly appeared before her …

If even the Straits Times can’t understand something as elementary as using tenses correctly (this is primary school stuff, mind), why do we bother teaching at all?
Perhaps more pertinently, why are they publishing a book and regular column on good English?

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