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Everybody loves the tense debate

We posted about it during the hearing, but it has become the watercooler talk all over the place -- the debate during the Lurita Doan hearing over tenses. (And it may not be a tense at all, according to one of our readers.

There are a few clips of the debate online.

This one excerpts the various parts of the debate:

This clip is where Doan says that she has a problem sometimes with tenses and personal pronouns:

The Web site of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi posts a ton o' video of the hearing. I'm sure it is fair and balanced.

The tense debate even made a blog on the Economist's Web site.

Let's not confuse grammar with meaning

A BIZARRE back-and-forth in congressional hearings over whether Lurita Doan, the former head of the General Services Administration, improperly politicised her work. (The GSA is meant to provide computers and pencils and buildings and whatnot to other government departments; the accusation is that Ms Doan spent a bit too much time on the job trying to help Republicans get elected.)


The post goes on to talk about how the subjunctive is not a tense, "but a mood. Second, it's hard to see how this statement can be put into the hortatory subjunctive, which is used to (as the name suggests) exhort."

Very helpfully, the Economist goes on to correct Doan's statement. Rather then:

Until extensive rehabilitation of their performance occurs, they will not be getting promoted and will not be getting bonuses or special awards or anything of that nature.

It should have been:

Until extensive rehabilitation of your performance occurs, let us not have any promotions or awards or bonuses or special awards!

And the Word Origins blog was almost gitty that this was a subject of debate. But they found flaws with... well, just about everybody's grammar.

Neither Doan nor Sarbanes can be crowned with grammatical laurels for this exchange. While Sarbanes is partially right in that the first statement is an example of future tense, but it is not simple future tense. Rather it is future conditional. The promotions, bonuses, and awards will be bestowed when the condition of rehabilitation of performance is fulfilled.

As for the hortatory subjunctive, English does not have one, rather it is a feature of Latin grammar. In English, the hortatory subjunctive is generally rendered as an imperative in first person plural. The question "how can we help our candidates" can be interpreted as an exhortation, and indeed it appears as if Doan used it as such, but it is a simple interrogatory, not subjunctive.

Over all, the fact that this was a point of discussion is a strong indication that... well, there just wasn't much there at the hearing. It seemed more like an opportunity to call somebody up to the Hill and kick 'em around while they are down. As Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) noted, perhaps that is why the LATimes poll found that Congress's approval ratings have actually fallen... to the lowest point in a decade, and even lower than the Presidents. (I didn't think numbers went that low! Just let me know when they are competing with journalists.)

When are we going to stop accusing anybody we disagree with of being criminal? Both sides do it -- but we tolerate it.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Jun 15, 2007 at 12:16 PM


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