Friday, 14 May 2010
The pains of pedantry
Two minor matters that occasion little but annoying pedantic pains.
1. by / with: question of agency, instrumentality and sheer physical contact
On the radio this morning, I hear: You'll get your eyes poked out by my sharp pen. Surely, I inwardly wince, the pen is not the active agent. It is merely an instrument you use. You have an intention and you carry it out with the aid of an implement. You'll get your eyes poked out with my sharp pen.
I can see how this comes about. It is because the true agent, I, is hidden. Something must be poking your eyes out. It's not me but my pen.
It occurs to me that I could be wrong but I do flinch on hearing it. Agency, I reason, is the determinant. If I wield the instrument (eg a sharp pen) your eyes are poked out by me, with a pen. If, however, a cricket ball is flying through the air and it hits you, then you would, according to my central nervous system, be correct in claiming that you had been hit by a cricket ball. And that may be correct even if I deliberately threw it, so that it should hit you. Somehow the ball acquires agency in flight. However, if I am still holding the ball at the time, then it must be a matter of striking you with a cricket ball.
2. was / were: what if
This is, if anything, a more constant itch, and I find myself correcting otherwise outstanding work because of it. It seems a much simpler matter.
If I were in Denmark is accepted shorthand for if, at any time, it should happen that in the next moment / hour / day / year / I should not be here but in Denmark....
If I was wrong, I apologise, is accepted shorthand for, if, at some time in the past / yesterday / five minutes ago / I did wrong, I now apologise..
But This is what he'd say if he was here, rubs me up the wrong way. Me! A foreigner! What this suggests to me is that if he could appear in the next moment / hour / etc / this is what he had said.. Nonsense.
Then of course you get into the maze of If he had been here he would have said . And the had hads. Famous example, the eight hads.:
In the test, John had had 'had', Mary had had 'had had'. 'Had had' had had more marks than 'had'.
But let's not have gone there. Back to the important matters of by / with and were / was. Remember lives - nay, cities, towns, whole wars! - have been lost on such errors. Civilisations have been wiped out!
Is that clear? I don't need to name these tenses, I just need to feel them so they stop hurting. If I am wrong, correct me. If I were to be wrong some time in the future you could correct me in the future. If I wasn't ever wrong, I must be some kind of deity. Take your pick.