READING AND WRETCHING.

Having pretty much caught up with the New Yorker, I’m making my way through this week’s issue (which has a nice old-fashioned cover by Sempé). I’m not quite sure why I started Jack Turner’s “Green Gold: The new absinthe craze” (not online) except that my default setting is to read whatever’s in front of me, but I became increasingly distressed as I read. Nothing to do with absinthe (in which I have no particular interest); no, it’s a matter (as usual) of language. The first alarm bells went off on the very first page, with the sentence “Near the entrance stood an immense plastic tub of wormwood, absinthe’s distinctive and contentious constituent, which, since the late nineteenth century, was held to cause insanity.” Leaving aside the problematic phrase “absinthe’s distinctive and contentious constituent” (shouldn’t it be “absinthe’s most distinctive and contentious constituent”?), what bothered me was the combination of the phrase “since the late nineteenth century” with the simple past “was held.” This violates what is (to my knowledge) one of the basic rules of English grammar (the real kind, not the ending-sentences-with-prepositions kind): a verb whose action explicitly continues into the present (as with a “since” phrase) requires the perfect tense; in this case, “has been held.” Contrariwise, if there is an explicit indication of a particular time in the past, the perfect tense cannot be used; if the phrase had been “in the late nineteenth century,” it would have to have continued “was held to cause insanity”—”had been held” would be ungrammatical. But you can’t mix and match; one of the most common errors of foreigners speaking English, even when they have a good knowledge of the language, is to say “Yesterday I have gone downtown” or “I lived in this country since 1990.” I presume the author started with one construction, changed his mind, and nobody read the sentence over to make sure it still worked. Bad editing.
I was concerned a couple of pages later when I read “Water was poured over the sugar into the absinthe, causing it to ‘louche,’ or turn a cloudy pale green”—there’s no verb to louche in the OED or in my experience—but googling tells me it’s in common use in the world of absinthe (see, e.g., here and here). False alarm.
But near the top of page 43 the author writes “…after drinking it I wondered for several moments if I would wretch.” There’s just no excuse for that; it’s a grade-school misspelling (of retch ‘try to vomit,’ originally spelled reach and apparently still so pronounced by some in the U.K.) that even the greenest proofreader on my local paper would be expected to catch or lose his job forthwith. To see it in the formerly impeccable pages of the New Yorker is truly disheartening. Shape up, people, or I’m not renewing my subscription!
Addendum. I just got to page 53, where in the course of a Calvin Tomkins puff piece on the Whitney a curator is quoted as referring to “the early twentieth-century.” Remember the Copy Editor’s Revenge? This is where he would have taken the hyphen from in order to fix the modifier he maliciously left unadorned by punctuation. Seriously, New Yorker, shape up. This is unacceptable.

Comments

  1. Just to get things going, I will disagree with you about the “was held” sentence. The sentence itself is in the past tense, not the present: the plastic tub of wormwood “stood”, at whatever time the reporter was looking at it. So, this wormwood exists in the past. The verb’s action continues not into the present but into the point in the past where the tub was viewed. You could argue that therefore “had been held” should be used, but “was held” sounds fine to me.
    You are certainly right about “wretch” and the New Yorker’s sloppiness here. I knew a guy in the 70s who, while still a subscriber, said the magazine went to pot after William Shawn. I don’t know what he may have thought about Tina Brown and subsequent editors.

  2. In my own writing I have I have the damnedest time with the perfect tenses. They’re terribly effective when well used, and I love them, but sometimes in a complicated sentence covering more than two time periods I end up stumbling all over myself.

  3. Department of fact checking: in my comment above about the guy I knew in the 1970s, I should have said, “it went to pot after Harold Ross” — the magazine’s first editor. Shawn was the second editor, succeeding Ross in 1952. He was in office during the 1970s and a legend in his own right, but this guy thought things went downhill starting in 1952. Shawn served until 1987.

  4. Doug Sundseth says:

    “I knew a guy in the 70s who, while still a subscriber, said the magazine went to pot after William Shawn.”
    Since there weren’t quotes around the reported statement, shouldn’t that have been, “… had gone to pot ….”? (The sentence refers to a condition continuing through a present that is now past, therefore requiring the past perfect.) 8-)
    Nicely done if intentional and still interesting if not.

  5. Martin writes:
    You could argue that therefore “had been held” should be used, but “was held” sounds fine to me.
    I thought about this had been held as I read LH’s post, but quickly rejected it. The “reference point” up until which wormwood gets to be held a cause of insanity is not the time at which the tub is observed, but the present. I agree with LH: has been held has cogent backing. But I also sympathise with Martin’s position: was held is acceptable. There is a pragmatic reason for this. If we transfer the original quoted passage into the present tense we get:
    Near the entrance stands an immense plastic tub of wormwood, absinthe’s distinctive and contentious constituent, which, since the late nineteenth century, is held to cause insanity.
    This is not canonic (and I hope never to commit such a sentence myself!); but it is fluent, efficient, and unambiguous. (Martin, do you agree? I think you would have to, to be consistent.) And in its original past form, the passage draws nearer to LH’s version in acceptability, because the canonic perfect form is more fussy and wordy. I had thought, at least, that this would be how American eyes and ears would take it, given that the perfect forms have long been in decline in the US (wherefore John Emerson’s generously confessed stumbling).
    My own problem with the passage is this. Constituent is inept, since the wormwood is no part of a structured whole. It is just an ingredient, albeit the essential one (and yes, LH, the not an essential one). Compare this example from OED:
    1811 A. T. Thomson Lond. Disp. (1818) 473 The constituents of the neutral carbonate…are, in 100 parts, 49 of acid, 29.85 of alkali, and 20.20 of water
    Now, there is much in OED and elsewhere that would seem to permit consistuent in the loose sense the passage accords it. But this quote from OED is indicative. The constituents of a whole are not only essential to it but also enter into the formation of the whole as a matter of proportion at least, if not also as a matter of structure. (We note that proportionality is often underwritten by structure, as in the carbonate mentioned by OED.)
    Yours temerariously,
    Noetica (back from China, and in the mood for these things once more)

  6. Um, oops.
    I have been guilty of an inconsistency myself. Rendering the passage in present tense throughout is not precisely the right investigative move to make. And the “reference point” for the holding-to-cause-insanity should be fixed at the present time of reporting, not the time at which the tub was observed. The following is now my order of preference:
    1. LH’s has been held
    2. is held
    3. was held
    4. had been held
    I think I could offer adequate reasons for all this, but for the moment I’ll not bother.
    I like Doug’s point about the past perfect amendment to I knew a guy in the 70s who, while still a subscriber, said the magazine went to pot [=had gone to pot] after William Shawn. And I’m glad he put it merely as a question. I think either version would do.

  7. Leaving aside the question about whether or not the perfect is tense or aspect, there are a number of problematic claims here.
    “a verb whose action explicitly continues into the present (as with a “since” phrase) requires the perfect tense”
    As in “I’m still waiting”?
    And I don’t think that wormword is still (in the present) held to cause insanity. I expect the author intended that statement to continue to hold true at the time in question, not now. The past perfect would make more sense.
    There are indeed dialects that allow ‘since’ with simple past tense, although my own flavour of English doesn’t. Just last week, though, my southern-Ontarian sister said, “I didn’t see her since 1990.”
    “One of the most common errors of foreigners speaking English, even when they have a good knowledge of the language, is to say “Yesterday I have gone downtown”” No, one of the most common errors of foreigners speaking English is to drop articles and third person singular ‘s’s. But, as a search through a language-learner corpus, such as that compiled by Sylvie Granger, could show, overuse of the perfect is relatively rare.

  8. Ah, Brett:
    As in “I’m still waiting”?
    This is not a good counterexample. LH’s claim concerned perfect forms contrasted with (non-perfect) past forms, not with present (non-perfect) forms. I had thought that the context of his claim made this quite clear.
    And I don’t think that wormword [sic] is still (in the present) held to cause insanity. I expect the author intended that statement to continue to hold true at the time in question, not now. The past perfect would make more sense.
    Well, what the author intended is not certain. But presumably the time of writing and the time of the matters reported in the writing are quite close. Too close, one might think, for the general opinion concerning wormwood’s efficacy in causing insanity to have altered significantly. In fact, I had thought that wormwood was still now considered to have that effect, and that absinthe was illegal for just that reason. Whether I’m right or wrong (and someone will know, no doubt), the opinion is certainly around.
    “One of the most common errors of foreigners speaking English, even when they have a good knowledge of the language, is to say “Yesterday I have gone downtown”” No,…
    But yes! The mere listing of other common foreigners’ errors counts no whit against LH’s perfectly sound assertion. It is borne out in my experience, at least. Certainly those foreigners we in Australia call Americans very often have trouble with perfect forms (see points above), to say nothing of continental Europeans of various linguistic backgrounds. But relatively rare, say you? Not even relatively rare, in the domain of the present discussion, pace any corpora you may wish to cite.

  9. I’m 100% with the Languagehat author here. It should be “had been held”, since overall tense of the sentence is in the past, and continuing action up to that point would require the past perfect.
    If the sentence was in the present tense (“Near the entrance stands an immense plastic tub…”), that phrase would read “has been held”.
    “Was held” and “is held” both grate on my ears when accompanied by the word “since”, which indicates a duration.

  10. Brett, I’m all for pickiness, but you’re being pretty unfair in treating my quick explanations of why I found the sentence badly written as if they were intended as a comprehensive treatise on English grammar and foreign speakers’ errors. Fortunately, in Noetica I seem to have an excellent defense lawyer. As for:
    There are indeed dialects that allow ‘since’ with simple past tense
    I suspected this might be the case, although it’s a pretty serious grammatical wrench, but if that’s the case, all that needs to be added is that it’s extremely unlikely that 1) the author speaks such a dialect and 2) the article is aimed at readers speaking such a dialect.

  11. michael farris says:

    I second the hat, I know of no variety of formal written English that allows since and simple past.
    I’m sure it was sloppy, incomplete editing (hat’s original point) of the kind that often happens to me, I change one thing and forget to change something else around it.
    You’d (or I’d) think that the New Yorker would have more careful copy editing.

  12. It’s certainly ungrammatical (in the real sense) in Standard English, and there is a requirement to edit normal texts into that dialect. But I think it could well have been caused by an attention deficit error: I don’t think writers re-read enough. There’s an overlap between a written ‘since NP’ and a semantic ‘in NP was’, and the NP is four words long, long enough to nudge the governing ‘since’ out of short-term memory.
    Any text no matter how well monitored will have disputable points though: that Whitney piece seems to be going by rigid style rules, such as ‘avoid semicolons and colons if possible’ and hyphenation rules that produce the grotesque ‘seventy-fifth-anniversary year’ and ‘hundredand-seventy-six-foot tower’.
    The former produces some painfully flat sentences, long chains of supplementary adjuncts including too many appositions and relative clauses, crying out for the hierarchy that a semicolon would give: those beginning ‘The Whitney Biennial’ (para. 1; here a semicolon after ‘culture’ is virtually obligatory), ‘Anderson’s predecessor’, ‘Chronically underendowed’ (which, despite actually having a colon, is gasping with thirst for more variety by the time we get to the ziggurat), and ‘Although he grew up’.
    I suspect that subeditors or proofreaders concentrating on common style mismatches will actually miss real grammar problems if they’re not in an obvious form.

  13. A propos of wretch/retch, a similar confusion seems to arise with wreck/reck(less), I have several times seen something like “I’ve been fined for wreckless driving” (which is a bit odd)!

  14. Compare also uncertainty between rapt and wrapt, especially in Australian popular usage.

  15. Point taken. I guess the post just caught me in the wrong mood.

  16. Regarding the comments on my own “went to pot after William Shawn” – no, I wasn’t making an intentional parallel. But the sentence would formalize as “went to pot after William Shawn assumed the editorship,” with the “assumed” clause understood. That assumption, as well as the “going to pot” being events at singular points in time, not continuing conditions, “went” works. A continuing condition version of this, requiring the perfect tense might be, “I knew a guy in the 1970s who said the New Yorker had been more lax in its grammatical vigilance ever since William Shawn became editor.” Which probably proves LH’s point, and I therefore withdraw my original contention.

  17. But the sentence would formalize as “went to pot after William Shawn assumed the editorship,” with the “assumed” clause understood.
    Hm. Note that without context it would be at least as natural to take the meaning as after William Shawn left the editorship.

  18. Art Rothstein says:

    Did nobody else notice the dangling participle in the lead paragraph of The Talk of the Town in the April 3 issue? Or has this become commonplace and no longer worthy of mention? (I cancelled my subscription soon after Tina Brown arrived, and now see the magazine only occasionally.)
    >

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