Daily Archives: January 9, 2012

Presenting the future

In an article in Slate that makes rather much of a little interesting observation in television news topic introduction syntax, Michael Kinsley tosses in this remark: “Long part of vernacular English: referring to the future as the present.”

I think it’s fair to guess that Michael Kinsley has never actually studied the topic, nor really spent all that much time thinking about it. The truth is that English, not just vernacular but all sorts, use present-tense inflectional forms to refer to pretty much everything that’s not the past – even our “future tense” (which we use only sometimes) is really a present auxiliary plus an infinitive. (I discuss this in a bit more depth in “How to explain grammar.”)

But that doesn’t mean we’re referring to the future as the present any more than saying “two fish” refers to the plural as a singular. It just means we have a semantic distinction that is not matched by a strict formal distinction. As with many things, we use our linguistic bits more loosely – English is a real ductape and WD-40 kind of language. Look, Chinese doesn’t have tense inflections at all, but that doesn’t mean that Chinese speakers are talking about everything as though it’s happening right now. Context!

Here’s a little poem, from my forthcoming Songs of Love and Grammar, illustrating our common use of present-tense forms to talk about the future and about timeless and durable states.

Christmas present

Now, Christmas has twelve days, of which the first one is tomorrow,
and I’m giving to my true love all that I can beg or borrow.
She knows that I’m a poet, so I’m giving her my words;
I know that she’s allergic, so I’m giving her no birds –
no swans, nor geese, nor turtledoves, nor even partridge one;
I know she’s introverted – lords and ladies are no fun.
Loud noises give her headaches. Drummers? Pipers? Please, not now!
And I’ll give her maids a-milking when she wants to have a cow.
But every year I give her something more than just a rhyme,
and I hope that she says yes to what I’m giving her this time:
on Christmas she is getting all the joy that I can bring,
for tomorrow I am giving her not five, but one gold ring.
She knows I don’t have money, but she knows she has my love;
with her I know I’m gifted by an angel from above.
So tomorrow I am proving what tonight I’m here to tell:
there’s nothing like the present to begin the future well.


Well, we know what a ballad is. Don’t we? Um, it’s a long song or poem that tells a story. We know of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde, perhaps. And then there’s “The Ballad of East and West” by Rudyard Kipling. And we may know “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” a song by the Beatles. Oh, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Which is actually a movie. Starring Will Ferrell.

They don’t have a whole lot in common, but they’re all stories. And they’re long. They’re not all good, but they’re not all bad. You sit down and listen to them. You may hear them quite a few times and get to know them back to front, maybe (or maybe not), and then notice that ballad looks the same in the mirror. But would you dance to them?

Well, that’s what ballad comes from: a root referring to dancing. When you go to a fancy ball, that’s the same root in ball. When some Spanish singer sings ¡Baila! it’s from the same root. And when you read a ballade, of course…

So, wait, what’s the difference between a ballad and a ballade? Is it like the difference between an old town and an olde towne? Mmm, no. The e isn’t just there to be fancy; the word came to us from French, so it’s organic. Ballad and ballade were originally two spellings of the same word, but this is another case where English has kept a divergent form to indicate a divergent referent. The words are sort of like the two brothers in that ’80s TV show Simon and Simon: one is freewheeling, the other tidy. Ballad just wants to go out there and tell its story. Ballade fell in with a set who like bondage and discipline – I mean bondage to a specific form and discipline in adhering to it, of course.

Does that sound a little medieval? Bang on! The ballade is one of the fixed verse forms that arose in France during the medieval period. The form got tidied up, whipped into shape, locked up in rules. A ballade is longer than many fixed forms, but not as long as many a ballad today. It features four stanzas with the same line at the end of each stanza; three are eight verses long, and the fourth is a four-verse envoi, originally typically dedicated to a prince. You may think of the envoi as like the e on the end of ballade, a finishing flourish. Thematically, you may expect some reflection in a ballade, some looking forward and then looking back, and finding parallels in the middle – b ll d. But really, the prescription is the form; the contents are up to the poet.

The rhyme scheme is punishing: ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC, where C is the refrain. Just as the word ballade stays on your lips and on the tip of your tongue, you will need a lot of rhymes – especially for the b rhyme – on your lips, and not just on the tip of your tongue. It’s the sort of thing a show-off – for instance Cyrano de Bergerac – might create ex tempore.

There are many good ballades out there, and seeking them out is left as an exercise to the reader; you may find some by Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and G.K. Chesterton, among many others. I present here, as something of an example, one of my own, from my set of poems “Forms on the Beach” – fiction, I assure you, and not really the sort of thing the medieval Frenchmen had in mind, but properly reflective, with a little fancy at the end.

Barbecue ballade

Hey, Johnny, grab the keg! The food is here
and Dylan and the girls have got a spot.
We hefted up the metal ball of beer
and ran with it, plus all the Coke we’d bought.
And I met Dylan’s girlfriend, who was hot,
all blonde and soft, with arm fuzz like a peach.
She grilled some wieners and some fish we’d caught
and laid them on the table on the beach.

We drank a lot, and, man, we had no fear.
We broke out some tequila we had brought.
We played Coke baseball, drank from a brassiere.
I used D’s girlfriend’s shorts to do a shot.
She said, I’ll show you something I was taught
but then you gotta promise to me to teach
somebody else.
We tried it twice, then smoked some pot
and laid down on the table on the beach.

The night crawled slowly in. The sky was clear.
We sobered up, though we had drunk a lot.
Two girls and I walked out along the pier
and Angela said, Johnny, you know what?
The lake’s reflecting things that I forgot
Diane leaned over, said, Hey, can you reach
my shorts?
I said, No, lovely, I cannot.
You laid them on the table on the beach.

And later on, two of us sat and thought
in cooler air of what had come to each
and took the best of all the things we’d got
and laid them on the table on the beach.