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December 11, 2012 / Jake Seliger

A discussion of a weird grammar quirk: tense and Mark McGurl’s The Program Era

In Mark McGurl’s excellent The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, he writes this about Vladimir Nabokov:

In fact, one of his best-known quirks was a scientific passion for a certain family of butterflies, the Blues.

The word “was” is interesting, because Nabokov’s quirks are still well-known, in the present. But Nabokov’s quirks happened in the past—he’s obviously dead. So there’s a moment of verb tense weirdness in this sentence, which might otherwise read something like, “In fact, one of his best-known quirks is the scientific passion Nabokov had for a certain family of butterflies, the Blues.”

There’s no particular point to this post other than a writer’s duty to notice language, and the opportunity to observe a specific example of language’s sometimes bizarre ambiguity.

(Those of you who are reading the last sentence and thinking about its own weirdness, be aware: that is intentional.)

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