November 11, 2003

Broken English from Ahnold?

The San Francisco Chronicle published a piece in early October 2003 about a group of Democrats who had been watching Arnold Schwarzenegger's early film "Pumping Iron" during the run-up to the gubernatorial election, just for laughs (before they realized they were laughing at the next Governor of the great State in which I live). They quoted this utterance as an example of what they called the "broken-English classics" of Schwarzenegger's speech:

I threw up many times while I'm working out. But it doesn't matter. It was worth it.

Not exactly `broken English', I would have said. But it does diverge in one way from a feature of normal Standard English. I thought of using it as an exercise in a grammar texbook I'm writing with Rodney Huddleston, but Rodney vetoed it as disrespectful, so we won't be using it. (It may be just as well; Schwarzenegger is, I realized after the election like one waking from a dream, is now going to be an ex officio member of the Board of Regents of my university.)

For the answer to the exercise you have to continue reading.

The answer to the exercise is that given the main clause I threw up many times, which is inflected in the preterite (here expressing past time reference), the subordinate clause, which has the same time reference, would normally also be in the preterite: it would be when I was working out.

English actually has backshifting of tenses in subordinate clauses governed by a verb in the preterite, even when there is no past time reference in the subordinate clause. Consider this example:

I told Stacy that Kim had blue eyes.

Stacy's blue eyes are not in the past; the eyes are still blue now. But what we do in English is shift the subordinate clause verb into preterite inflection (had blue eyes instead of has blue eyes) as if to respect the choice of tense in the main clause. It's optional here: it's also grammatical to say I told Stacy that Kim has blue eyes.. (The full story about backshifted preterites, which is mouthwateringly subtle and rich, is told in Rodney Huddleston's spectacular chapter on the verb in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 151-158.)

The thing about the Schwarzenegger quote is that the preterite in the subordinate clause is obligatory: the subordinate clause actually does refer to past time, so the present in while I'm working out really does sound a bit weird.

Not broken English, though. A small departure from idiomatic standard English, and a use of tense that would be grammatical in some languages. (There are languages in which a main clause tense is sufficient, and a subordinate clause can get away with no tense at all.) What Schwarzenegger said was not all that far from grammaticality. Definitely not a linguistic infraction that would get a man thrown off the Board of Regents of a university or anything. But then journalists always tend to exaggerate rather wildly when they say anything about grammar.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 11, 2003 01:17 AM