April 08, 2006

"Conditional tense" at the NYT

A couple of days ago , Linda Seebach sent me an email about an item at Regret The Error referencing Gawker's citation of a Tabloid Baby post about a letter from an editorial assistant at the New York Times. That sentence suggests why the blogosphere is a paradise for folks interested in tracking the diffusion of information through social networks -- but in fact there's a linguistic point at the end of that chain of references. Details follow...

A 4/3/2006 NYT article by Andrew Jacobs, "On Job with Empress of Celebrity Gossip", observed that

Reporters from Variety, "Entertainment Tonight" and "A Current Affair" might be expected to remain corralled behind a length of velvet rope, but at a recent premiere for "Inside Man" at the Ziegfeld Theater in Midtown, Mrs. Adams [Cindy Adams, gossip columnist for the New York Post -myl] curtly rebuffed a perky film publicist who had asked her to join the salivating pack.

Tabloid Baby argues that this sentence has a false presupposition, inappropriate for the newspaper of record:

A Current Affair was canceled in October 2005, so there’s no way one of its reporters was behind that velvet rope. Additionally, A Current Affair was regularly denied access to celebrity red carpet lines, because it did real tabloid entertainment journalism and refused to regurgitate studio pap and myths, like ET. So you'd figure the Times would at least cop to placing a nonexistent reporter at the scene, no?

We asked the Times for a correction, and were pleasantly surprised when, in small-town, old school fashion, the paper actually responded to our request.

The post goes on to quote the letter from Karin Roberts, Assistant to the Metropolitan Editor:

You are correct in noting that "A Current Affair" has been canceled. However, the article does not say that a reporter for "A Current Affair" was at the premiere of "Inside Man." ...

The first part of [the quoted] sentence is written in the conditional tense; it means that at red-carpet events like the premiere, those reporters would probably stay behind the velvet rope. The second part goes on to describe what happened at this particular premiere.

Tabloid Baby, Gawker and Regret The Error all seem to feel that Ms. Roberts' excuse was inadequate, not to say lame. One of Tabloid Baby's commenters puts it bluntly:

So if we follow this logic through, basically the Times is saying "Yes, our references are outdated, confusing and stale, but they're not technically inaccurate when we make 'em hypothetical. We couldn't possibly be expected to list three viable, current media outlets for this item. We're on deadline you know. Just thank your lucky stars we didn't cite reporter Lou Loudrock from "The Flintstone Free Press."

But the point of Linda Seebach's email was a different one. Roberts' reference to the "conditional tense" is not just a lame excuse, it's also a double misuse of grammatical terminology. What Roberts is referring to is neither a matter of tense, nor a conditional.

We can streamline the original sentence to read "Reporters are expected to remain behind a velvet rope, but Mrs. Adams rebuffed a publicist who asked her to join the pack." If we add the modal preterite might to the first clause

Reporters might be expected to remain behind a velvet rope, but Mrs. Adams rebuffed a publicist who asked her to join the pack.

it add a tinge of concessive tentativeness, which is a matter of grammatical mood.

As Geoff Pullum wrote recently with respect to a similar terminological malfunction at The Economist, involving a reference to the "passive tense":

Tense is an inflectional category of verbs that has time reference as its primary semantic function. English has two orthogonal tense contrasts: the primary one is present vs. preterite (compare writes with wrote) and the secondary one, marked with the past participle preceded by the auxiliary verb have, which contrasts non-perfect versus perfect. The have can be in either present or preterite, so we get both writes / has written and wrote / had written. Subjects and objects are unaffected by tense changes.

Geoff went on to explain that the distinction between active and passive is a matter of grammatical voice.

None of this matters to the specific point that Ms. Roberts was trying to make. Jacobs' sentence described a general expectation about where journalists should stand, and reported that Cindy Adams insisted on violating it. The reference to particular media outlets was meant to make the exceptionalism more vivid, not to report the presence of any specific reporters.

Nor does the grammatical terminology matter to the bloggers' objection: common sense tells us that it's odd to mention hypothetical reporters who couldn't have been present at the time and place described, even as the subject of a modal concessive clause. If I were to write

Jorge Luis Borges, George W. Bush and Mahatma Gandhi might be in Palo Alto waiting for a bus in the rain, but Geoff Pullum is enjoying the sun in Granada.

it would be reasonable for you to point out that Borges and Gandhi are long since dead, and W doesn't take the bus.

As Geoff said, "the problem of people confusing voice with tense is not a huge danger for the future history of the world"; and we can add that life on earth is also unthreatened by confusing mood with tense and throwing around meaningless references to conditionals. But Geoff's question remains:

... for heaven's sake, if people have absolutely no idea how to use technical terminology of grammar, why do they try ...?

Here's a concrete, positive suggestion: Geoff should create a short remedial course on English grammar, including a brief but clear overview of tense, voice, and mood; and media companies should hire him to give it to interested employees.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 8, 2006 07:51 AM