Sunday, December 27, 2009

Verb Errors

These are just the first two paragraphs of an opinion piece, but they are littered with elementary verb errors.

In the first paragraph, do is wrong as there is no reason for an abrupt switch in tense from past (spoke, were) to present.

In the second paragraph, poor service standards was not my bugbear is, again, obviously wrong.  Since the plural standards is the head of the noun phrase poor service standards, we need a plural verb, were.


GM said...

Dear TGT

I find the sequence of tenses confusing. I was taught in school that if you start a sentence in the present time, you should use present tense throughout the whole sentence, and you should continue a sentence in past tense if you start it in the past tense.

Then one of my teachers told us that for reported speech on universal truth or fact and the continuity validity of an idea, then the tense remains unchanged - present simple tense. For example,

My primary school teacher taught us that water boils at 100 degrees celsius.

Whether there is a continuity validity of an idea is difficult to decide as it depends when we report the speech. We can either say “Paul knew that Susan was pregnant” if Susan has already given birth or “Paul knew that Susan is pregnant” if Paul saw Susan’s round stomach the day before and that Susan has not given birth when the statement was said.

In addition, I am disturbed by the tense for minutes of meeting. Do we write in the minutes “The Chairman informed the meeting that the policy to cut down carbon emission will be implemented in 2012.” or “The Chairman informed the meeting that the policy to cut down carbon emission would be implemented in 2012.” ?

I extracted the following Sequence of Tenses from “200 Hints on Practical English Structures” by Dr Tan Cheng Lim, (1989) Hillview Publications. I think it succinctly summarizes the sequence of tense, which, sadly is not explicitly taught in school.

“Generally speaking, the verb tense of a main clause should agree with that of a subordinate clause.

The guiding principles are as follows:
(A) When the verb in the main clause is in the past tense, the verb in the noun clause or adverb clause should also be in the past tense, as in:

1) He said that he was absent yesterday.
2) She failed because she did not work hard.

There are two exceptions:

a) When the noun clause expresses a truth or universal fact, the tense of the verb always remains present, e.g.

i) Newton discovered that the force of gravitation makes apples fall.
ii) The teacher said that honesty is the best policy.

b) In an adverb clause of comparison, we may use any appropriate tense , as in:

i) He liked you better than he likes me.
ii) She valued his friendship more than she values mine.
iii) She weighed as much as I shall weigh after my diet.

(B) When the verb in the main clause is in the present tense, the verb in the noun clause or adverb clause may be in the present tense or in any other suitable tense, as in:

1) John believes that he will pass the driving test.
2) The director has just told me that he was ill last week.
3) The Government has decided that there will be a cut in income tax.
4) He is lazy though he is intelligent.
5) She is angry with the man because he scolded her.

(C) The verb tense of adjective clauses is somewhat free from the influence of the verb tense of main clauses . For example:

He suggested the idea which people ignored, which they attack, but which they will eventually accept.

The verb in the main clause suggested is in the simple past tense. Though the verb in the first adjective clause ignored is also in the simple past tense, the verb attack in the second adjective clause, and the verb will accept in the third adjective clause are in the present simple tense and present future tense, respectively.

That the verb tense of adjective clause is free is irrefutable.”

In your example, can we argue that the do in “those who do not know the products or services they were selling” emphasizes that up to now, the employees still do know the products?

What say you? Or, should I say what do you say? English is confusing, particularly English Grammar!

Thank you and Happy New Year!

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Dear GM

I agree with what your teachers said and also most of what you quoted from Dr Tan Cheng Lim's book. (I don't, however, quite get what he means by 'adjective clause'.)

The examples have to do with tense in indirect speech. (Michael Swan's Practical English Usage has an extensive section on this, far more than I'm able to cover here.) Generally, verbs in the quoted portion go one step back into the past, but there is some leeway, for example with 'continuity validity', as you mentioned. Indeed, Swan also says: '... a reporter can often choose whether to keep the original speaker's tenses or to change them, after a past reporting verb. Both structures are common.'

I'd change 'will' to 'would' in your minutes example.

As for the example I blogged about originally, there is no good reason for the change in tenses since the writer is referring to salespeople in the recent past. More importantly, it just doesn't make sense to say 'They DO not know the products they WERE selling' -- major clash of tenses!

Happy New Year to you too,


Anonymous said...

Sir, budden she was refering to "a long time ago" so shouldn't it be in the past tense? OMG this is so confusing

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Yes, she was referring to 'not long ago', so she should've kept to the past tense instead of changing tense midway when there was no good reason to ...