25 May 2007

Present and past tenses and towels

Today is Towel Day. It could be an oblique reference to the Irish election results, as in “throwing in the towel” (to admit defeat or failure, it seems) or using an old towel to mop up the remains of some party or other, but it isn’t.

It is a day for geeks and linguists, a day to celebrate Douglas Adams and the many uses of a towel in intergalactic travel. It is thus in the spirit of discourse analysis that I quote this important section from the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which gives us a glimpse into the crucial problems encountered by grammar in time travelling circles, notably in the case of the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional (the last tense usually consulted by readers of The Time Traveller’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations; it seems that students subsequently give up on tenses, and the above grammar book is blank after the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional entry. Sad, but true.)

It will tell you for instance how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations whilst you are actually travelling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own father or mother. (Adams, 1980, p.80)

And the Future Perfect was or will be abandoned because “it was discovered not to be”.

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