I didn’t intend to write a sequel to last week’s column on the Senator Shehu Sani tweet that invited sarcastic, ill-natured grammar trolling from a paid agent of Governor Nasiru El-Rufai. But the social media circus that my column elicited necessitated this follow-up. There are lots of people who genuinely want to learn about the appropriate uses of tenses but who are bewildered by the cacophony of social media hooey masquerading as expert opinion on this issue. This column is for them.
But I need to mention right off the bat that Senator Sani is far and away the most imaginative user of the English language in the current Nigerian Senate. His puns, witticisms, and humorous yet thoughtful metaphors have enlivened an otherwise dull political climate. His speeches on the floor of the Senate have made by far the most memorable quotes in the life of this republic. So no one can deny that Senator Sani is a masterful and proficient user of the English language. The minor grammar slips in his social media status updates, which we are all liable to make, in no way detract from his facility with the language.
And just so I am not misunderstood, I actually wholly align with the sentiments encapsulated in the senator’s tweet and decry the infantile pettiness of his critic who suggested that because he transposed tenses in his tweet he should take an elementary school competency test.
With that out of the way, it helps to realize that this isn’t political punditry; it’s bare-bones, technicist analysis of grammar and usage, which isn’t amenable to the interpretive liberties of political punditry. Several of the people who are “defending” the senator’s tense-challenged tweet are general-interest commentators on social and traditional media who imagine that everything is subject to pontifical dialogic brawl. As psychologist Abraham Maslow once pointed out, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
Their hammer is punditry and they see every issue as a “perspective,” as an “opinion.” That bespeaks cognitive unsophistication. I am both a political commentator and a language enthusiast, and have learned to separate political commentary from my language and grammar interventions.
The political-commentators-turned-overnight-grammar-mavens who are nonetheless mistaken in their defense of a demonstrably wrong grammar usage but who persist in their error out of vanity and a need to nurse their hurt egos fit in nicely to a group I once characterized as “English mumpsimuses” in my April 9, 2017 article titled, “English, Indigenous Language Instruction, and National Development.”
What is, or who is a, mumpsimus? Well, there are two senses of the term in linguistics and general usage. Mumpsimus is defined as “adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy….” It is also defined as “an error to which one clings after it has been thoroughly exposed.” A person who is wedded to, or who persists in, mumpsimus (that is, pigheaded insistence on clinging to an error after it has been shown to be an error) is also called a mumpsimus.
The term came to mean stubborn resistance to correction because an old, uneducated monk in the 16th century mispronounced the Latin word “sumpsimus” as “mumpsimus” during a religious observance. When he was corrected, he refused to take correction and intentionally persisted in his error out of prideful stubbornness.
There are many mumpsimuses in Nigerian cyberspace who defend, and persist in, provably wrong usage. They deny the admissibility of correction and, when they can’t sustain their defense with the resources of logic and evidence, claim that English isn’t their native language, or that they are “creative” people who are taking liberties with the rules, who are bending the rules.
Well, to bend the rules, you first have to know the rules. Dalai Lama XIV echoed this sentiment when he said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” Pablo Picasso said it even better: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” You can’t betray unfamiliarity with the basic rules of grammar and claim to be “creatively” bending them when you are called out.
Someone even called the rules of grammar “false rules”! Since language, every language, is inherently rule-governed, the notion that time-honored grammar rules, which are organic to the language, are “false” has to rank as the most comical defense of bad grammar I’ve encountered. No language is arbitrary or anarchic. Of course, rules change. That is what makes languages endure. A stagnant, inflexible language sooner or later withers and dies.
But changes to the rules of language don’t take place overnight- and certainly not because some mumpsimus petulantly wills it into being on social media. Language change is usually a gradual, complicated, osmotic, even imperceptible, process. For example, tautologies (such as “most unkindest”) and double negatives (such as “I don’t want nobody”) were perfectly permissible during Shakespearean times, but have been stigmatized in the language since the 1700s, and are now considered solecistic. (For more on this, read my August 9, 2015 article titled “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards.”) On the other hand, many expressions and usage patterns that were frowned upon generations ago are now accepted and socially privileged.
However, every language consciously or unconsciously polices boundaries of what is considered correct and acceptable usage at particular times either through curricular tyranny or through social and symbolic pressures. Plus, some rules hardly change in language. One of them is tense, especially the present tense. You don’t get to choose when to use the present, past, and future tenses. The fact that even otherwise educated and proficient users of the language can defend an incontrovertibly ungrammatical use of tense and fancy themselves as doing anything other than embarrassing themselves shows that it won’t hurt to occasionally bone up on basic grammar lessons like the meaning, uses, and functions of tenses.
That’s what I intend to do today for the benefit of people who want to learn. I will use the senator’s tweet as an example to instantiate the rules.
Tenses in English
There are primarily three tenses in English: present, past, and future tenses. I will only discuss the present tense because there is no space to discuss all of them and because only the present tense is relevant to this intervention.
The present tense has four sub-categories, and they are “simple present,” “present continuous,” “present perfect,” and “present perfect continuous.”
The simple present expresses habitual actions that are not bound by time. Example: “Our economy grows.” Here, the sense is that this growth is not limited by time. That’s why saying “our economy grows by 1.4%” can only mean that our economy grows by 1.4% in perpetuity. That’s logically and factually impossible since the no country’s economy grows at the same rate forever. In fact, the Nigerian economy grew by 0.72 percent in the second quarter and shrank in previous quarters. The simple present tense also expresses general, enduring truths such as, “our economy grows when we have leaders who have a clue.”
The present continuous tense expresses actions that are occurring now, and typically combines a verb to be (such as “am,” “is,” and “are”) and the “ing” forms of action verbs. Example: “Our economy IS GROWING.”
The present perfect tense expresses actions that show a continuity between the past and the present or that show actions that began in the past but are not finished yet.” Example: “Our economy has grown 1.4 percent.” It means the growth started at some point in the immediate past but still subsists now because we are still in the same timeframe. That’s what Senator Sani should have written if we were still in the third quarter when he tweeted.
A defender of Senator Sani on Facebook wrote: “AS Aruwa should understand that the Distinguished Senator was right for using the simple present tense ‘Grows’ instead of ‘Grew’. The economy grows by 1.4 percent means it is still on that growth number. If it eventually changes to 2%. [sic] We will be reporting 1.4% as complete Past [sic] tense.”
People with little understanding of English grammar were persuaded by this grammatically impoverished defense. First, as I showed earlier, the name for the tense that describes actions that started in the past but with effect that continues in the present, which is what the defender describes, is “present perfect tense,” not “simple present tense.” Second, it is ungrammatical to use the morphological inflection of the simple present tense, that is, “grows,” to indicate the present perfect tense. The present perfect tense is correctly indicated with the linking verb “has” or “have” and the past participial inflection of action verbs, such as “grown.”
In last week’s column, I said “grew” was the appropriate verb to use because the third quarter ended in September, and the data for the fourth quarter would be different from the preceding one. In other words, the third quarter has no continuity with the fourth, just like the second had no continuity with the third. That makes it a simple past tense, also called a preterite. This isn’t a different “perspective.” It’s a basic rule. You either know it or you don’t.