Tenses here, tenses there

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky offers this passage from the Ask a Manager blog of the 12th:

Managers and the possessive tense

I have a new manager who has placed his desk in the middle of the room, and conducts all of his conference calls in a rather loud fashion. In doing so, he constantly refers to the employees (myself and my peers) as “his” — e.g. “my team,” “my testers,” “my people.”

Am I wrong to feel a bit demeaned that my new manager is placing himself as a king among the common employee? His self-placement of prominence above those that he rules is causing quite a bit of resentment amongst “we the people.”

Elizabeth reports that this is otherwise an excellent blog (offering good advice on managing), but possessive tense is nonsensical as a technical term of grammar.

The grammatical term tense is very frequently misused by non-grammarians. Language Log has posted many times on the very frequent expression passive tense; you can find some instances of singular and plural tense, as on this site:

My boss recently decided that since the singular versions of our main section keywords have larger search numbers, we should change all our site navigation, page titles and headings to the singular tense. Thus “office chairs” has become “office chair”. I hate this. It looks like our site was built by a non-English speaker with poor translation skills.

and on Language Log some time ago, I reported on the remarkable subjective tense, with subjective (a term for case in nouns) used for subjunctive (referring to a particular grammatical mood in verbs) and tense used for mood.

How does this happen? Well, yes, lots of people have been poorly trained in the concepts and terminology of the tradition rooted in the technical literature on Greek and Latin grammar; these people then blunder along, getting a lot wrong. But in addition this tradition is both voluminous and complex, with opaque terminology, not easily learned.

In this tradition, there’s a set of grammatical categories (categories relevant to grammar, that is, to morphology and syntax), each category having a set of possible values that can be referred to in the grammars of particular languages. For the category tense, there are the values past, present, and future, plus more refined values, like proximal and distal past and future; a language (or variety of a language) may treat some (or none) of these values as relevant in its morphosyntax.

Among the categories are: for nouns, number, person, gender, and case; and for verbs, these nominal categories, except for case, plus the specifically verbal categories tense, mood, aspect, and voice. These category labels are mostly opaque, the verbal categories especially so. Even tense isn’t immediately comprehensible: the grammatical use has nothing to do, etymologically or otherwise, with tension; instead the technical term is etymologically related to Latin tempus ‘time’.

No wonder so many people, who experience only tiny slivers of this system in schoolwork, have trouble using the terminology correctly.

Note: I am merely reporting here on the bare bones of a traditional framework for talking about grammar, because so many people have had bits of experience with this framework and no experience at all with any other. There is much to be said critically about the system — but fixing things requires substantially altering the way the traditional terms are used and/or introducing a raft of new terminology, in either case to fit with a considerable reconceptualization of the world of grammatical categories.

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