Post Your Opinion
Tense Times
by I. M. Owen

ACQUISITOR: I took too much credit to myself in the last issue in claiming to have introduced this word. A journalist friend reminds me that this was done by Peter C. Newman in 1981, when he gave the title The Acquisitors to the second volume of The Canadian Establishment. So that's why, as I said last month, it seemed so familiar. My apologies to Newman, who is of course one of our leading innovators. Twenty?five years ago, with the title of his very first book, he single?handedly changed the definition of renegade, which used to mean "traitor," to "one who robs the rich to give to the poor."

FRONT?END LOADING: This, I learn, is the term used by Robert Taylor, who looks after style at the Canadian Press, for the usage I complained about in the October issue, on which Robert Fulford nobly supports me elsewhere in this issue. So there are three of us. But Taylor is a little more tolerant than I am. His ruling in The Canadian Press Stylebook permits, without recommending it, a short description like Canadian businessman Conrad Black, but goes on: ... long descriptives piled in front of the noun are hard on the reader: Ontario senior men's field hockey coach Seiji Ohtake. For easy reading, use a phrase preceded by the or a: the Canadian businessman Conrad Black or a Canadian businessman, Conrad Black. 'Mere isn't much evidence in the press that his audience is listening, though.

HEADLINES: These days I have frequent opportunities to watch with admiration as skilful editors devise headlines for news stories. It's a demanding branch of the writing profession; you must use the right number of characters, keep an eye on the clock, and have an intelligent grasp of what's most important in the story. It also helps if you understand the English language. A reader in Peterborough, Ont., sends me a headline from that town's newspaper, the Examiner, whose writer failed on one of the last two counts. The story, about the aftermath of ? Hurricane Gilbert, reported that the Canadian high commissioner in Jamaica was certain Canadian food is reaching those who need it. The headline said Commissioner ensures Canadian aid getting through. 'Me word ensures gives the diplomat a much more active role than she has in the text. A newspaper that was once edited by Robertson Davies should try harder to live up to its traditions. You may think headlines are too trivial a matter to discuss in this column. But since few people have the time or the inclination to read a newspaper through, we get our knowledge of most news events from the headlines. We have a right to ask that they should tell the truth.

OPTIMISM: Mr. Broadbent said his party has made a serious commitment to Quebec, adding that he is optimistic it will win seats therefor the first time. (Globe and Mail.) By the time you read this, we'll all know if Scary Ed was right or wrong; at the time of writing, his choice of the word optimism doesn't inspire confidence. Optimism (from Latin optimus, best) means a habit of expecting the best no matter what: in other words, a foolish, unfounded hopefulness. Public figures who want to sound hopeful without risking predictions that may turn out to be wrong always express cautious optimism. It's a contradiction in terms: they mean cautious hope. But then public figures don't like to use one syllable when they see an opportunity of using three. The sentence at the head of that paragraph brings up another point, which I may as well deal with here:

SEQUENCE OF TENSES: When the principal clause of a sentence is in a secondary tense ?? past (said), imperfect (was saying), pluperfect (had said), or past conditional (would have said), any subordinate clauses depending on it are also in secondary tenses. Therefore the sentence above should have read Mr. Broadbent said his party had made a serious commitment to Quebec, adding that he was hopeful that it would win seats there for the first time. journalists, who so often have to tell us what people have said, fall into this trap regularly. My impression is that nearly everybody uses the natural sequence in speech without thinking about it; it's in writing that things go wrong ?? perhaps as a consequence of stopping to think. A dangerous habit.

OBTUSE: A review in Quill & Quire of Marshall and Eric McLuhan's Laws of Media says For someone obsessed with communication, McLuhan is notoriously obtuse in print. This confusion happens often: the word intended is obscure, or "hard to understand." Obtuse means "stupid." The two have nothing in common but the prefix ob?. I wonder why obtuse is always the chosen malapropism. Why not obese? Or oblong? The reviewer, Paul Roberts, teaches communication at York University, we are told. Communication is difficult without agreement on the meanings of words.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us