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    TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    Many of you are learning English from grammar books, which use single sentences with no context. Without the context of what the speaker is talking about, the tense form of the verbs can vary, and still be grammatically correct.
    Here is some real live dialogue from a Columbo mystery:

    Columbo: I understand some of these people are guests of yours on the cruise. Some kind of used-car salesmen or something like that.
    Murderer (but only the viewers know at this point): You make used-car salesmen sound like a disease.
    C: No offence intended. It’s just that a murder has been committed on the boat and the captain has unofficially asked me to look into it until we reach Mexico and…well, I just didn’t want to disturb your guests more than I had to.
    M: You don't think one of them shot the girl?

    Any thoughts about his choice of tenses, the two in bold type. Remember, tense gives/needs a reference point!

    With no reference to whether the tenses above are right or wrong, a later piece of dialogue is:
    "No. There's no prints on the gun."
    This is inexcusable...even for an American screenwriter.
    Last edited by David L.; 30-Aug-2008 at 22:26.

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    Quote Originally Posted by David L. View Post
    "No. There's no prints on the gun."
    This is inexcusable...even for an American screenwriter.

    The screenwriter is writing colloquial or "slang" English. Quite often in real-life conversation, native English speakers don't follow the traditional rules of grammar. You and I know that the sentence should read "there are not prints on the gun," but unfortunately a lot of folks use a "shortcut" and say "there's" instead, despite it being incorrect (and setting some teachers' teeth on edge when we hear it).

    In a similar vein, some educated folks (police officials, etc) will adopt the street speech native to their location. That means even though a cop in Brooklyn has a college degree, he'll still say "youse" instead of "you all."

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    1. He's talking to a suave sophisticate at that point (the captain of the ship, and British to boot, played by Steed from "the Avengers") - perhaps I should have included that as context. But anyway:- context: far, far from 'the streets'.

    2. Are you telling me that he can't think three words ahead of what is going to come out of his mouth? - he's thinking 'prints', plural, and still comes out with a singular verb.

    Rest assured world. They make some great movies and TV shows in the good ol' USA, but at this point in time, the English language is better left in the hands of the creators.
    Last edited by David L.; 30-Aug-2008 at 23:38.

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    That bumbling ineptitude was part of Columbo's methodology. He spoke the inarticulate language of the streets, he wore a rumpled raincoat, he always needed to borrow a pencil in order to take notes....he gave the impression to the perpetrators that he was a doddering police lieutenant who was out of his element and didn't know what he was doing. Of course, TV viewers knew that Columbo was simply playing a game of cat and mouse, and was never as "dumb" as he appeared to be.

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    Quote Originally Posted by David L. View Post
    1. He's talking to a suave sophisticate( perhaps I needed to add even that context - played by Patrick Vaughan from ""I Spy") - but anyway: context - far from 'the streets'.

    2. Are you telling me that he can't think three words ahead of what is going to come out of his mouth? - he's thinking 'prints', plural, and still comes out with a singular verb.

    Rest assured world. They make some great movies and TV shows in the good ol' USA, but at this point in time, the English language is better left in the hands of the creators.
    You're kidding right, David?
    Columbo is using a normal Brooklyn dialect because he's a normal Brooklyn cop dealing with some of the nastiest scum on the planet. I doubt he'd even survive if he spoke like an English professor.

    "I just didnít want to disturb your guests more than I had to."
    I'm not sure what the objection is here. He has been challenged by the murderer after requesting to talk to the guy's guests. He really means "
    I just donít want to disturb your guests more than I have to." but he is (ostensibly) backing off by becoming more polite. It means "I'm sorry I came on so strong" - and that is the point of reference.


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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    I thank you for confirming how important 'context' is.
    Whilst I fully appreciate the characterization of 'Columbo', of which you remind us all, I note also that you are thereby an adherent of the school of linguistics whereby the 'destructive' , slovenly speech influences that change language (see Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language) are normal because of lack of appreciation of the finer points, the nuances. I also appreciate that your stance resonates with the American laid-back attitude.
    I embrace constructive changes, new words which enrich the language. I agree with some others - 'whom' is doomed.
    I happen to resist slovenly erosion - or call it by its real name: corrosion.

    "O'er London Town and it's golden hoard
    I keep my strident watch and ward"
    (Apologies to W.S.G. -"The Yeomen of the Guard")
    Last edited by David L.; 31-Aug-2008 at 00:30.

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    Keep it clean, folks. I thought the original post was inviting a fruitful discussion - among students - of uses of tense in everyday speech, but that hasn't happened. I'm afraid there's some coat-trailing going on here (and if I thought any students were following this thread I'd explain that metaphor).

    b

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    Quote Originally Posted by BobK View Post
    I thought the original post was inviting a fruitful discussion - among students - of uses of tense in everyday speech, but that hasn't happened. I'm afraid there's some coat-trailing going on here (and if I thought any students were following this thread I'd explain that metaphor).
    b
    That's what I originally thought too, Bob, that it was an exercise for students; until I read the second example about the gun.
    You could explain coat-tailing. I'm not sure what it means either in this context.
    By the way, how do you tell if students are following a thread or not?

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    Quote Originally Posted by Raymott View Post
    That's what I originally thought too, Bob, that it was an exercise for students; until I read the second example about the gun.
    You could explain coat-t^R^ailing. I'm not sure what it means either in this context.
    By the way, how do you tell if students are following a thread or not?
    The R is important; "coat-trailing" is intentionally trying to provoke a hostile reaction. Think of a matador.

    And on your last point - There's not a magic way (as far as I know). It's just a gut-feeling!

    b

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    Re: TV's Columbo ...and his tenses.

    I'm getting the feeling that David L. feels that Americans, particularly those portrayed onscreen, do not speak the Queen's English, and are a slovenly, lazy lot as a result. I can accept and deal with that. Even in professional business settings, I've noticed that people with degrees from Ivy League Universities occasionally use inappropriate verb tenses. Sad to say, there is a certain "dumbing down" of the English language in the US.

    On the other hand, the folks on EastEnders don't always use perfect grammar, either.

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