The past tense, and other grammatical implications of death

One of the things that often strikes us, after someone’s death, is that we have to make a shift in how we speak of that person. It suddenly becomes an error to say “he loves popcorn.” Indpendent of the subject’s history of affinity for popcorn, there is that crossover point between loving popcorn, and having loved popcorn. Survivors undergo a transition where they find themselves using the wrong tense, and self-correcting. The realization that we have erred nags at our minds like the red ink marks of a high school English teacher urging consistency in an essay.

Then there is the loss of conjunction. For years, you go to visit Grammy and Grampa. The conjunction and serves to join two noun phrases [Grammy]NP and [Grampa]NP into a single noun phrase. That noun phrase can then serve in a variety of grammatical functions: subject, with nominative case ([Grammy and Grampa]NP called), or various object positions, with accusative (Let’s visit [Grammy and Grampa]NP), or genitive case (We need to remember to bring that book to [Grammy and Grampa]NP‘s house.) With the absence of one referent, the conjoined noun phrase loses both the conjunction and the second noun phrase. It is a simplification of structure that belies the complicated nature of the end of almost 6 decades of married life, a conjunction of law and love and life together that are only hinted at by the word and.

With this loss of the conjunction, too, comes a shift from the plural to the singular, which of course brings its own implications for subject-verb agreement. In the present tense, English requires a different verb inflection for most third person singular subjects than for plural ones. Grammy and Grampa love it when we visit must change to Grammy loves it when we visit, with the inflectional affix -s added to the verb to reflect that singularity. This, of course, reminds us once more that there is only one of the two members of that former conjoined phrase whose actions, affinities and attributes will, by and large, be discussed using the present tense.

We mustn’t forget, though, that we can hold onto the present tense, and even the future; A whole host of constructions are available to us by keeping Grampa in object positions. I miss Grampa. It’s okay to be sad about Grampa. We will hold onto Grampa’s memory.

Standoff at the P.P. Corral

Prologue: Following a week of scattered confrontation, Phoebe “The Kid” and the Marshall square off for a day of showdown.

Scene 1: In a kitchen, shortly after breakfast.

    Phoebe “The Kid”: I need to go pee-pee.

    The Marshall: [perkily] Do you want to try sitting on the potty?

    Phoebe “The Kid”: No!

Scene 2: In a living room, about 20 minutes later.

    Phoebe “The Kid”: I need to use the potty

    Marshall: [perkily] Okay.
    [Phoebe and the Marshall go into the bathroom. Phoebe pulls down big girl underwear, climbs onto the toilet with special potty topper for small-bottomed bandits. Phoebe tenses up. Silence ensues.]

    Phoebe: I’m all done now!

    The Marshall: But Phoebe, there was no pee-pee. Can you sit there for a little bit longer?

    Phoebe “The Kid”: I’m all done now!

    The Marshall: [Attempts to negotiate, using various pleas, grovels, bribes…] Just like you’ve done so many times before. And you can get a sticker!

    Phoebe: [starting to sob] I’m all done now! I don’t need to go pee-pee.

Scenes 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, …
Scenes play out much as above, with dialog varying slightly. Intersperse with scenes of Phoebe looking uncomfortable and wanting to be held like a little baby. The music builds. The bladder holds tight. The underwear stays dry. The Marshall’s resolve withers.

Summary of the umpteenth scene, the final standoff, over 4 hours later: The Marshall realizes that she is outgunned and outwitted. Banging her head against the wall (which offers no more than a satisfying thud), she is about ready to raise her hands in defeat and give in to the diaper demands. In desperation, she calls for backup. The reinforcements come. As the Marshall sits pouting on the couch, the reinforcements’ masterful negotiating skills convince Phoebe to surrender her urine to the potty. Phoebe “The Kid” appears to be reformed, and is awarded a star.

Stay tuned for the riveting sequel, wherein new versions of the scenes above are played out following the nap.


Over 6 weeks, 4 full charts, 28 stickers each chart, representing well over a hundred successful potty usages. (Things were looking so promising that we weren’t even putting stickers for most pee-pees. I’m sure you don’t want to get me started on the topic of “the other,” which has been another story. Actually, the story hasn’t been all that different from today’s feature film. Imagine dialogs much like those above, repeated about every other day.) Anyhow, we seemed to be in the home stretch. Phoebe had been using the potty at daycare for 2 straight weeks, coming home in the same dry pull-up diaper we sent her in. And then this last week, she stopped using the potty at daycare altogether. It could be that a new baby started at daycare. Which doesn’t quite bode well for the upcoming weeks…

It’s not like we’re back at square one. Phoebe is still using the potty at least once a day. But damn would I like to be done with this.