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.)