The past tense, and other grammatical implications of death


One of the things that often strikes us, after someone’s death, is that we have to make a shift in how we speak of that person. It suddenly becomes an error to say “he loves popcorn.” Indpendent of the subject’s history of affinity for popcorn, there is that crossover point between loving popcorn, and having loved popcorn. Survivors undergo a transition where they find themselves using the wrong tense, and self-correcting. The realization that we have erred nags at our minds like the red ink marks of a high school English teacher urging consistency in an essay.

Then there is the loss of conjunction. For years, you go to visit Grammy and Grampa. The conjunction and serves to join two noun phrases [Grammy]NP and [Grampa]NP into a single noun phrase. That noun phrase can then serve in a variety of grammatical functions: subject, with nominative case ([Grammy and Grampa]NP called), or various object positions, with accusative (Let’s visit [Grammy and Grampa]NP), or genitive case (We need to remember to bring that book to [Grammy and Grampa]NP‘s house.) With the absence of one referent, the conjoined noun phrase loses both the conjunction and the second noun phrase. It is a simplification of structure that belies the complicated nature of the end of almost 6 decades of married life, a conjunction of law and love and life together that are only hinted at by the word and.

With this loss of the conjunction, too, comes a shift from the plural to the singular, which of course brings its own implications for subject-verb agreement. In the present tense, English requires a different verb inflection for most third person singular subjects than for plural ones. Grammy and Grampa love it when we visit must change to Grammy loves it when we visit, with the inflectional affix -s added to the verb to reflect that singularity. This, of course, reminds us once more that there is only one of the two members of that former conjoined phrase whose actions, affinities and attributes will, by and large, be discussed using the present tense.

We mustn’t forget, though, that we can hold onto the present tense, and even the future; A whole host of constructions are available to us by keeping Grampa in object positions. I miss Grampa. It’s okay to be sad about Grampa. We will hold onto Grampa’s memory.

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10 responses to “The past tense, and other grammatical implications of death

  1. This is a very strange post and yet I love it. <3

  2. It’s the shift from the plural to the singular that I find to be the most poignant. There is a finality within that shift that is sometimes difficult to deal with. Great thoughts here.

  3. Yes. Complicated and sad. I just made that switch with regard to my friend Dawn, and when I wrote a post about her, I found myself puzzling over tense.

  4. My two semesters of linguistics surfaced in my brain with this post, but it’s my heart that responded to this: “It is a simplification of structure that belies the complicated nature of the end of almost 6 decades of married life, a conjunction of law and love and life together that are only hinted at by the word and.”

  5. Awww, sweetie… *hugs*

  6. Produces a few imperatives as well. as in
    ‘We must look after Grammie.” ‘I have to pull myself together.’.
    Sympathy – dative case.

  7. Also, I’m sorry about Grampa.

  8. Beautiful post. Linguistics as a way to think about grief… If this is actually specifically about a particular Grampa, I’m very sorry. And in light of yesterday’s tragedy, this post feels very timely.

  9. Lovely. In the case of my grandpa I’ve become accustomed to speaking of him in the past tense, as we had to begin to do that even before he went from is to was: He loved taking walks, he ate ice cream and pie for breakfast, he recognized everyone in his family. But when talking of our cat Tisha, just with Erik, I often continue to use the present tense: Tisha is the best cat, Tisha is smart, he is a good jumper. I will use the past tense in one sentence and the present in the next. Only with Erik, because between us there is the perfect understanding that Tisha is both is and was.

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