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New Words #7: If and/or When
Predicting the future is a dangerous grammatical game
I will make dinner when I get home from work. A pretty straightforward sentence, right? Sure. But let’s take a closer look.
· When does the dinner-making part happen? In the future, obviously. That’s why it says “will make.”
· When does the getting-home-from-work part happen? Also in the future, duh. It’s right there in the sentence: when I get . . . Wait, that’s the present tense!
If English is your primary language, you say things like this all the time without thinking anything of it. We use the present tense in when clauses regardless of whether the action takes place habitually or is a predicted future event. This gets weirder the more you think about it: I will make dinner when I get home from work is a sentence in which a person plans to return home on one future occasion, while I make dinner when I get home from work is a sentence about a person returning home on a regular (perhaps daily!) basis, even though the phrase when I get home from work is identical in both instances. That is objectively wild.
Many other languages of western Europe handle this scenario differently. In French and Irish, for example, the future tense would be used in both clauses, given that both actions are expected to occur in the future. (How logical!) Personally, though, I have a soft spot for the way Spanish speakers approach this type of sentence: with the “making dinner” clause in the future tense and the “getting home” clause in the present subjunctive—the mood that suggests an action is possible or hoped for rather than certain. I find beauty in that grammatical feature of Spanish, with its suggestion that the future is fundamentally unknowable.
For learners, these small distinctions can lead to misunderstandings—of greater or lesser severity, depending on the languages involved. For example, if a learner of English applies French-language logic and says something like “I will make dinner when I will get home from work,” that’s not too big a deal; English speakers will find that sentence a bit awkward but perfectly comprehensible. However, if a learner of French applies English-language logic and uses the present tense in that same scenario, it will sound to French speakers as though the when clause refers not to a one-time future event but to something that happens regularly: “I will make dinner [on one future occasion] when I get home from work [every day].” It just doesn’t add up; one part of this sentence or the other requires clarification.
Even in the absence of linguistic interference, speakers of the same language can disagree about the exact meanings and implications of statements about future events. Many English speakers today consider shall and will interchangeable in terms of their meaning, with the former merely sounding more formal or old-fashioned. But in legal drafting, the debate over the use of shall and/or will to create an obligation in a contract, rather than to predict future events, is an ongoing headache, despite efforts by plain-language advocates to circumvent the issue and encourage the use of must in their place. In my experience as a certified translator working primarily with legal documents, understanding French or Spanish legalese is never the most challenging part of a contract translation. It’s the ambiguity of verbs in English—my primary language and the one I translate into—that causes me the most consternation.
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. This time around: two recent reads I greatly enjoyed.
In Brandon Taylor’s first story collection, Filthy Animals, characters struggle to reconcile their fears and vulnerabilities with their desire for intimacy. Taylor’s prose is riveting, and I was intrigued by the collection’s structure: a series of linked stories taking place over a two-day period, interspersed with individual stories about unrelated characters. I imagine this collection could have been presented as a novella accompanied by other stories, but the decision to treat each of the linked stories as a stand-alone narrative has significant implications for the reading experience.
Lauren Willig’s novel Band of Sisters follows a group of recent Smith College alumnae on a volunteer mission to a devastated region of rural France in 1917. Among them are Emmie, an heiress determined to step out of her socialite mother’s shadow, and her onetime roommate Kate, a scholarship girl turned schoolteacher who dreads being patronized or pitied by her wealthier classmates. Loosely based on the real-life Smith College Relief Unit, Band of Sisters is a lively and inspiring portrait of young women taking control of their lives amid extraordinary circumstances.
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.
Out next month from Frayed Edge Press: Songs for the Gusle, my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1827 hoax, La Guzla! I’ll be in touch when I have pre-order information. Or when I will have pre-order information. Or when I hypothetically have pre-order information. Never mind, you get the idea.
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