Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Prescriptivist Tenses...

I use this 'Stumble' extension for Firefox, which randomly sends you to webpages that others have tagged as interesting. Today it sent me to this page. Let me warn you - it's a prescriptivist rant. [insert your own spiel about how prescriptivism is wrong]. What I found fascinating is the fact that people rant about these things without researching them first. If I were to rant about something, I would research it first, you know, to cover my bases. So here's an excerpt:

#27: UNEXPLAINED CONDITIONALS: I'm baffled by the now almost universal use in the U.S. of the conditional tense where no condition appears to exist to justify it. For example, it is now apparently standard practice to thank people conditionally, as in "I would like to thank Joe Smith for all his help." The use of "would" suggests an unspoken condition, as in "I would like to thank Joe Smith for all his help but I'm not going to" and prompts the response, "What's stopping you?" "I want to thank ....." is no better. Just say "Thank you, Joe Smith, for all your help" and slip him the plain envelope with the cash. November 23, 2005.

Now, I know that people usually talk about a 'conditional mood' as opposed to a 'conditional tense', and I know that I hear the counterfactual conditional being used to convey politeness all of the time. But what I don't know (shamefully), is what 'mood' is. I know Tense, according to Reichenbach, is the relationship between the utterance time UT and the reference time RT. But in order to provide a definition for mood I'll need to do some googling...

(cue wavy lines and 'passing of time' music)

Definition 1:


SYNTAX: cover term for one of the four inflectional categories of verbs (mood, tense, aspect, and modality). The most common categories are associated with the way sentences are used: indicative (statement), imperative (command), optative (wish), etc. Sometimes the distinction between declaratives (I go) and interrogatives (Do I go?) is considered one of mood. "


Definition 2:

"Mood is one of a set of distinctive forms that are used to signal modality" where "modality is a facet of illocutionary force, signaled by grammatical devices (that is, moods), that expresses" either "the illocutionary point or general intent of a speaker, or a speaker’s degree of commitment to the expressed proposition's believability, obligatoriness, desirability, or reality. "

Source: SIL

Definition 3:

"unlike modals, mood markers do not have quantificational force of their own; their main function is to add a presupposition about the type of conversational background that is involved in the modal interpretation of the sentence."

Source: Matthewson et. al 2005:12, on Portner 1997

So, er, while I still don't know exactly what 'mood' is, I think the common theme in the above definitions are that mood is what results when something is morphologically or syntactically used to encode elements of the F-domain, where F consists of the illocutionary force and illocutionary context. (where Speech Act = illocutionary force + illocutionary context + propositional content). Obviously that needs to be ironed out a bit, because I think the vagueness of that definition allows the encoding of information structure like Topic and Focus to also be considered as moods markers..which I'm not sure is what I want.

If anyone wants to tell me what mood actually is, I'd be grateful!

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