Thursday, September 06, 2007

the second-best game


Although I love hockey with all my heart, I advocate polyamory (at least with respect to sports), and baseball is right up there. And of course part of what's so great about baseball is the announcers, who speak a strange and wonderful dialect of English. They possess a weird ability to change the valence of verbs, adding predicates wherever they please (stranded the bases loaded). But this one stopped me cold - and I heard it twice, on two consecutive days, so it wasn't a speech error:
If that gets through, the Brewers take the lead.
The thing is, it's an irrealis conditional - the ball didn't get through. (And they weren't showing the play while saying it.) I'm used to the baseball use of present tense form for future time reference: The series starts tomorrow. But this is yet another use of present tense. Wikipedia (source of all knowledge) says "zero conditionals" can be formed this way, but that's supposed to be under realis conditions (If it rains, we're in deep doodoo). Contrary-to-fact past conditionals normally take past perfect or would+have (If you had told me..., If you woulda told me...), but present tense is just downright weird, at least to me. I guess it's an extension of the in-the-moment narration use: the announcer wants to make you feel like you're there, seeing the play as it happens.

(Image is of Ryan Braun, Brewer's heartthrob candidate for rookie of the year.)

7 comments:

RickS said...

I take it to be a pure hypothetical, for which the present tense is appropriate. It's as if the commentator were looking at alternate universes and reporting what happens in those where the ball wasn't stopped.

You could also look at it as just simplifying grammar (dumbing down) for the viewers. "If that had gotten through, the Brewers would have taken the lead" is harder both to formulate and to parse, it seems to me. It would be interesting to study whether live commentators and other extemporaneous speakers tend to avoid complex syntax, presumably to reduce the chance of embarassing production errors.

Monica said...

Yeah, but why would it be a pure hypothetical, when we know it didn't happen? It's not like "if pigs could fly" - in this case we know the ball didn't get through. Maybe it's just my weird Wisconsin dialect... :-)

Aniibiish said...

Yes, it seems clear that this is a species of the historical present, and cool that you've pointed it out.

Anonymous said...

I doubt this is dumbing down but rather sport talk and something I would expect to hear on tv or radio. I wouldn't be surprised if it occurs in any kind of immediate post-hoc analysis such as after elections.

And it occurs in a number of canned phrases by the announcers on the MLB video game my kids have. The game is a few years old, back when Carlos Lee was batting fourth for the Crew.

Anonymous said...

Now that I think about it, I can imagine this being said about an event that happened in the distant past. For example, imagine a PBS special on the Battle of Britain and some prof of history saying "blah blah blah. That's right--if the bombs hit their mark, the Germans get Britain."

Monica said...

Yeah, good point! I could get that one too.

Ben Zimmer said...

For more on baseball conditionals, see Mark Liberman's two posts on Language Log.