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Opinion » musings

Posted at: Aug 12, 2017, 12:28 AM; last updated: Aug 12, 2017, 12:28 AM (IST)

Why we remain tense

Ratna Raman
Why we remain tense
Tenses’ in grammar, rhyme with ‘lenses,’ and just as appropriate lenses correct faulty vision,  the  correct use of tenses enables us to position ourselves well  in the framework of life.   ‘The present tense’ enables us to provide a record of the here and now. 'The past tense' enables us to review or record previous activity, while ‘the future tense’ enables us to plan in advance. 

The  past, present and future  continuous tense  enables us to stretch  moments  that we like such as “I was eating a  piece of chocolate truffle,” “The cold coffee I am drinking is delicious,” and “I will be eating chocolate cake at a  birthday party this evening.” The verb forms of   ‘to be’ (‘was’, ‘am' and ‘will be’) enable us to arrange our lives in an efficient manner, time and again.

The 'word tense' functions both as a verb  and as  an adjective in real life situations.  As a verb, ‘tense’ takes on the past participle to become ‘tensed’.   Usually, when we talk about physical exercise, we observe how muscles flex or contract.  Fitness buffs tense their muscles as part of their work out programme.  Tense here is synonymous with ‘stretch’, ‘tighten’, ‘flex’, ‘brace,’ ‘contract’, and ‘tauten.’ When the weightlifter picked up incredibly heavy weights, his muscles ‘tensed’ (tightened, became rigid) with the effort. “Sulekha ‘tenses’ (tightens) her core muscles  as she  begins the pole vault.” “When Sunita dived into the pool, her body tensed on coming into contact with the cold water.” 

However, when we need to describe an atmosphere of prevailing unease, ‘tense’ is used as an adjective.

“She was ‘tense’ (unable to relax) whenever she travelled anywhere outside her home because the city continued to remain hostile and unsafe for women.’   “Cow-vigilantism has created a tense (anxious, strained) situation for ordinary people, hindering them from leading ordinary, everyday lives.”    'Intense' (extreme) fear and terror continue to predominate.  “The situation is tense in several parts of the country and tensions continue to accelerate.  The state’s perception of  such pretence (falsification , posturing)  by  miscreants (criminals) as  a ‘necessary evil’ (unavoidable) has  emboldened  them further. Shrill hyper-nationalism and brute violence have become part of the new order.

In all of the above examples, the word tense functions as an adjective, and is not subject to any change. Cub reporters from leading English dailies incorrectly state that “the situation was tensed.” Oversight in the editing process ensures that it is printed. 

The situation at any given point in time can only be described as "tense; irrespective of whether it describes the past, present or a future event (was, is, will be). “The situation remains tense”, “remained tense,”  “will continue to be tense” is correct grammatical usage. Invariably, this is how adjectives work.

Incorrect use of grammar while reporting news is annoying in the short term. In the long run, an incorrectly worded newspaper report is like a giant car sitting on the zebra-line,   obstructing pedestrians from crossing at a busy intersection.

Very often, the use of incorrect words leads to the development of poor language skills. Audio-visual media and newspapers have an important responsibility to monitor the grammar used in conversations, reported speech, circulated information and news. Leading English dailies must inform reporters  on their payroll that  ‘tense’ when used as an adjective  cannot and must not be  changed to ‘tensed.’  Clarity about usage goes a long way in easing language snarls.


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