Saturday, Aug 24, 2019
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Misuse of language

Dear Editor,

Too many Bahamians have taken to the use of the conditional perfect, “would have”, to refer, incorrectly, to action that was presumably taken. It has become a virus in our language.

“Would have” is a conditional perfect tense and refers to a missed opportunity in the past. It is quite wrong to use it in place of the simple past tense.

Words matter and our leaders in particular should mind not only their Ps-and-Qs but also their sentence construction and now, their conditional perfect.

In classic English grammar a conditional is sometimes called an “if clause”. These typically describe something that might have happened in the past but did not. An “if clause” is made using different English verb tenses.

Example: “If I had gone to bed early last night, I would have gotten to work on time.” The past perfect collides with the past participle.

Not to pick on any one user but Acting Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson has been in the news recently talking about the WTO. Said he: “The government would have committed over three years to bring down customs duties.”

The logical follow-up to that is: “So why didn’t the government do it?”

But Johnson was boxing clever in trying to explain to his audience something the government had in fact done. Better he said instead: “The government met its commitment over the past three years to bring down customs duties.”

Or take this one from National Security Minister Marvin Dames: “The commodore would have taken into account what would have been said and is taking steps…”

What he meant to say is this: “The commodore took into account what was said and is taking steps…”

The minister and the secretary are not alone. Every day we are assaulted by speakers at every level of our society – politicians and policemen, preachers and teachers – often in a slow, deliberate fashion as if to draw out their perceived educational superiority or enlightenment, telling us of a myriad of things that “would have” happened when, in fact, they did happen.

Grammar is important especially when children are listening. If they learn incorrectly then it places them at a distinct disadvantage in the future. Good grammar is essential in everyday life to bring clarity of both meaning and intent.

It is important in politics, in diplomacy, in the administration of justice and in day-to-day transactions; otherwise we will descend into a modern Babel. But apparently our doctors of education have not noticed this virus because they have said nothing.

Just imagine a Bahamian government minister abroad at an important international conference saying something like this: “My country would have joined the United Nations in 1973, the year of our independence.”

His listeners would be waiting for him to say what prevented the Bahamas from joining in 1973.

Think about all this the next time a friend who speaks good English says he “would have” paid you back the $50 he borrowed. He means he’s broke and can’t pay you.

But Johnson, Dames and a plethora of Bahamian speakers would interpret that to mean he paid the money back.

No big deal indeed. But you are still out $50.

– The Graduate

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