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Switching Tenses

Crumbly Writer

My editor corrected my use of tense in the following sentence.

You spouting off like a New York Cabbie can cost a lot of people their jobs.

I pointed out how the entire sentence is in present tense ("spouting"), so interjecting a past tense verb ("could" instead of "can") violated the tense of the sentence (something I do often, but always limited to isolated sentence fragments). However, reading it, it does read better with "could", even though it's not legit by English grammar standards.

What does everyone think. Is the sentence better with "can" or "could", and if I go with "could", how do you justify flouting standard grammar rules?

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

Isn't your sentence more about possibility and ability than tense?

can — possibility
could — ability

At least that's what I found when I googled it. I also found this when it refers to tense.

When could is used as the past tense of can, it refers to an ability that a person generally had in the past or to something that was generally possible in the past ("When I was younger, I could run for miles," or "It used to be you could buy lunch for a dollar.").


btw, I wouldn't capitalize "cabbie."

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Capt. Zapp

@Crumbly Writer

You spouting off like a New York Cabbie can cost a lot of people their jobs.

What does everyone think. Is the sentence better with "can" or "could", and if I go with "could", how do you justify flouting standard grammar rules?


Since this appears to be part of a dialog, I think it is better whichever way the character chooses to say it. Most people do not always speak according to grammar rules and standards.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

Isn't your sentence more about possibility and ability than tense?

can — possibility

could — ability

Except, in this instance, it's the possibility she'll offend someone which might cause people to lose their jobs, not her ability to swear like a cabbie. Thus my initial objections are reaffirmed. Which leaves me wondering why "could" sounds better if it's clearly grammatically incorrect.

By the way, I agree with the "Cabbie". I'm not sure why I choose that, possibly because I connected it with the capitalized "New York"?

Replies:   awnlee jawking  REP
awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

Might I suggest 'might' instead of can/could?

AJ

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

What does everyone think. Is the sentence better with "can" or "could", and if I go with "could", how do you justify flouting standard grammar rules?

I would say without hesitation I think "could" is better.

As to why? I have an explanation - but I failed to find any references to support it. :(

The Oxford Dictionary states that 'could' is the past tense of the modal verb 'can', but it also lists it as a modal verb in its own right - with some rather idiomatic uses. In your sentence I think it's functioning as a modal verb showing a possibility in the future?!

Ross at Play

For what it's worth ... this is the definition of 'could' (as a modal verb) from my Oxford Dictionary:

(1) used as the past tense of 'can'
* She said that she couldn't come.
* I couldn't hear what they were saying.
* Sorry, I couldn't get any more.

+ GRAMMAR POINT

can / could / be able to / manage

* Can is used to say that somebody knows how to do something: Can you play the piano?
It is also used with verbs of seeing, noticing, etc:
I can hear someone calling,
and with passive infinitives:
The podcast can be downloaded here.

* Can or be able to are used to say that something is possible or that somebody has the opportunity to do something:
Can you/are you able to come on Saturday?

* You use be able to to form the future and perfect tenses and the infinitive:
You'll be able to get a taxi outside the station.
I haven't been able to get much work done today.
She'd love to be able to play the piano.


* Could is used to talk about what someone was generally able to do in the past:
Our daughter could walk when she was nine months old.

* You use was/were able to or manage (but not could) when you are saying that something was possible on a particular occasion in the past:
I was able to/managed to find some useful books in the library.
NOT I could find some useful books in the library.
In negative sentences, could not can also be used:
We weren't able to/didn't manage to/couldn't get there in time.
Could is also used with this meaning with verbs of seeing, noticing, understanding, etc:
I could see there was something wrong.

* Could have is used when you are saying that it was possible for somebody to do something in the past but they did not try:
I could have won the game but decided to let her win.


(2) used to ask if you can do something
* Could I use your phone, please?
* Could we stop by next week?

(3) used to politely ask somebody to do something for you
* Could you babysit for us on Friday?

(4) used to show that something is or might be possible
* I could do it now, if you like.
* Don't worry—they could have just forgotten to call.
* You couldn't have left it on the bus, could you?
* 'Have some more cake.' 'Oh, I couldn't, thank you (= I'm too full).'

(5) used to suggest something
* We could write a letter to the director.
* You could always try his home number.


(6) used to show that you are annoyed that somebody did not do something
* They could have let me know they were going to be late!

(7) (informal) used to emphasize how strongly you want to express your feelings
* I'm so fed up I could scream!

Idioms

could do with something
(informal) used to say that you need or would like to have something I could do with a drink!
* Her hair could have done with a wash.

Capt. Zapp

@Ross at Play

I can just imagine.
"You spouting off like a New York Cabbie can... no, could. No, wait, let me whip out my Oxford Dictionary so I know which word to use."

awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

* Could I use your phone, please?


Oh dear, from the context that usage is incorrect - the speaker should have used 'may'.

'Could' means that they're asking whether they're physically capable of operating the phone.

AJ

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@awnlee jawking

Oh dear, from the context that usage is incorrect - the speaker should have used 'may'.

If I could, I would ask, "May I shove that phone of yours up somewhere dark and smelly?"

I'm inclined to think could/may has joined I/me and like/as as fine points of grammar that were swamped by everyday usage long ago.

awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

I'm inclined to think could/may has joined I/me and like/as as fine points of grammar that were swamped by everyday usage long ago.


As someone who had it drummed into me at school, it's hard to let it go.

In common vernacular the distinction has largely disappeared, but Oxford Dictionaries ought to go to the trouble to get their examples right, even if they're not forcing usage down people's throats.

Next you'll be telling me they don't observe any distinction between 'less' and 'fewer. (I broke the rules in a supermarket today - I used a till signed '10 items or less' (sic) despite having 11 items in my basket.

AJ

Replies:   Ross at Play  sejintenej
richardshagrin

@awnlee jawking

Might I suggest 'might' instead of can/could?

I agree, might makes right.

Ross at Play

@awnlee jawking

In common vernacular the distinction has largely disappeared, but Oxford Dictionaries ought to go to the trouble to get their examples right

I agree that they should take care not to make mistakes like that.

For me, it's one of those things that's certain to trigger a negative response if I'm ever corrected.

REP
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


Which leaves me wondering why "could" sounds better if it's clearly grammatically incorrect.


My personal opinion is 'can' and 'could' both imply the possibility of something happening. However, to me 'could' implies that 'something' probably won't happen, where as 'can' implies there is a high probability of that something actually occurring.

Someone spouting off like a New York cabbie is not likely to result in someone losing their job, so 'could' seems like the better fit for the situation.

sejintenej
Updated:

@awnlee jawking


As someone who had it drummed into me at school, it's hard to let it go.


I agree with you completely. Can I / Could I means "am I capable of...? " "May I" is a request for permission.
I suspect that we are seeing yet another difference in our different forms of English or maybe it is the effect of laziness in the classroom.

My immediate complaint was with the first word;

You spouting off like a New York Cabbie


The spouting off ... is effectively a noun which is owned by "you". Therefore it should be the possessive "your"

richardshagrin

@sejintenej

"your"

Please replace with you're, which is the contraction for "you are". Lets not visit homonym city this thread.

sejintenej

@richardshagrin

Please replace with you're, which is the contraction for "you are". Lets not visit homonym city this thread.

No because you would then have to amend "can/could cost a lot of people their jobs"

Switch Blayde

@sejintenej

The spouting off ... is effectively a noun which is owned by "you". Therefore it should be the possessive "your"


"Spouting off" is a verb, not a noun.

I think it's "you." Maybe it's an idiom. It's like the person is pointing a finger at him (at you). More at him than what he said.

awnlee jawking

@sejintenej

The spouting off ... is effectively a noun which is owned by "you". Therefore it should be the possessive "your"


Good point - it's the subject of the verb 'can'.

AJ

BlacKnight

@Switch Blayde

In this case, "spouting off" is either a participle, which is a verb that's been transformed into an adjective, or a gerund, which is a verb transformed into a noun. (Modern English makes it difficult to distinguish.) I'm leaning towards participle, which means "You" is correct.

You (subject) [spouting off like a New York Cabbie] (adjective phrase modifying the subject) [can cost] (verb) [a lot of people their jobs] (object).

If you assume that it's a gerund, the genitive "Your" would be correct, adding a possessive to the noun phrase.

"You're" ("You are") is not correct. The sentence already has a verb ("can cost"), and you'd have to make other changes to wedge another one in.

"You're spouting off like a New York Cabbie and can cost a lot of people their jobs," is valid, but has a somewhat different meaning.

In any case, I'd use "could". And "cabbie" shouldn't be capitalized.

richardshagrin

Switching Tenses

We are way past tents, we live in bungalows now.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@richardshagrin

bungalows now


Is bungalow snow English for igloo?

AJ

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

Might I suggest 'might' instead of can/could?

I wanted something stronger than "might", as in, if you curse, you WILL get people in trouble! "Might" just seems too tenuous.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

I wanted something stronger than "might", as in, if you curse, you WILL get people in trouble! "Might" just seems too tenuous.


Fair point. I assume 'will' is too extreme in the other direction.

AJ

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

I'm inclined to think could/may has joined I/me and like/as as fine points of grammar that were swamped by everyday usage long ago.

My main takeaway from Ross's lengthy dictionary listing, is that "could" (and can too) are primarily used as passive verbs, casting the verb as something distant, having little to do with what's actively happening (ex: "I could do it" ... but I'm unlikely to).

Since passive verbs remove the readers from the action, making the action seem unimportant, it's worth avoiding the usages whenever possible.

However, the suggestion (undocumented) that "could" also implies future actions is more promising. "Can" suggests the character CAN ruin lives right now, whereas "could" suggests her actions now could impact people in the future. I suspect that's why "could" sounds better in the sentence, because it casts the usage more accurately than can can! Love that can can action, man.

Replies:   sejintenej
Crumbly Writer

@REP

Someone spouting off like a New York cabbie is not likely to result in someone losing their job, so 'could' seems like the better fit for the situation.

Again, a lot of this is contextual, and I'd rather got include too many spoilers, as this is a major plot twist in the story. The person being addressed (who's in danger of swearing like a cabbie) would be likely to get the person hosting her in trouble, thus resulting in a backlash which might cause the loss of their employees' jobs. Thus 'spouting off' goes from 'might' to 'will likely'.

Crumbly Writer

@sejintenej

The spouting off ... is effectively a noun which is owned by "you". Therefore it should be the possessive "your"

I agree with that. I was trying to make it personal, a person plea NOT to swear, so I went with "You" doing this "could" result in X.

Crumbly Writer

@richardshagrin

Please replace with you're, which is the contraction for "you are". Lets not visit homonym city this thread.

Sorry, but most definitely NOT. "Your are spouting off" implies the person is spouting off at that particular time, as opposed to the risk of her potentially spouting off in the future. Since this serves as a warning, the "You are" is NOT appropriate. Instead it's HER spouting off, so it would be "Your spouting off".

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I think it's "you." Maybe it's an idiom. It's like the person is pointing a finger at him (at you). More at him than what he said.

That was the intent, though I'm now leaning towards "Your spouting off ..."

Crumbly Writer

Alas, although "could" sounds better and is simpler, I've decided to replace it with a few more words:

Your spouting off like a New York cabbie is likely to cost people their jobs.

I decided "a lot of" is another passive phrase, making the entire discussion seem distant and not an immediate concern.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

"Spouting off" is a verb, not a noun.
I think it's "you." Maybe it's an idiom. It's like the person is pointing a finger at him (at you). More at him than what he said.

Sorry, SB, it may be a verb but it is functioning as a an apposite, a noun phrase, in this case, placed after a noun providing further information about the noun.

What you have is:
You: a pronoun as the subject of the sentence
spouting off like a New York cabbie: an apposite noun phrase adding information about the subject
could cost: the verb of the sentence
a lot of people their jobs: a noun phrase as the direct object of the verb

Technically, and you probably don't want to hear this, you should enclose the appositive in commas. The phrase is providing non-essential information. Enclosing it in commas would indicate the start and end of a detour your sentence goes on in between the subject and its verb.

This is what CMOS says at 5.21 Appositives defined; use

An appositive noun or noun phrase is one that immediately follows another noun or noun phrase in order to define or further identify it — for example, George Washington, our first president, was born in Virginia ('Our first president' is an appositive of the proper noun 'George Washington').
Commas frame an appositive noun or noun phrase unless it is restrictive — for example, compare Robert Burns, the poet, wrote many songs about women named Mary ('poet' is a nonrestrictive appositive noun) with the poet Robert Burns wrote many songs about women named Mary ('Robert Burns' restricts 'poet' by precisely identifying which poet).
A restrictive appositive cannot be removed from a sentence without obscuring the identity of the word or phrase that the appositive relates to.

I could not understand what you meant the first time I read the sentence: I needed a lengthy double take to figure it out. I know you work hard to eliminate commas that would be required in formal writing - and I agree it makes for better fiction - but I sincerely suggest they are necessary in this sentence to assist readers' comprehension.

The comments above suggesting 'You' be replaced with 'Your' and 'You're' are valid, but not right for the accusing tone of the meaning you are looking for.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Capt. Zapp

@REP

Someone spouting off like a New York cabbie is not likely to result in someone losing their job,


If it happens in New York, or many major cities for that matter, probably not. But if it happens in , say a small mid-western Bible-belt town, yeah, it might.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

Sorry, SB, it may be a verb but it is functioning as a an apposite, a noun phrase, in this case, placed after a noun providing further information about the noun.


Yep. I always contend I suck at grammar.

@BlacKnight pointed that out very well. Not that I suck at grammar, but why I was wrong.

sejintenej

@Crumbly Writer

I suspect that's why "could" sounds better in the sentence, because it casts the usage more accurately than can can

You could increase the degree of certainly by a half measure by adding "well" as in "might well", "could well" "can well"

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