Some people like to talk dirty. I like to talk grammar. It's my little perversion. So when the lady rang to say she had a grammar question and would I like to go for a walk, I said yes as instinctively as Trump lies.
We met by a shallow pond that my old dog loved. He was no swimmer but on hot days he would just wade in to shoulder depth and stand absorbing the cool. He wouldn't have waded today. The wind whipped little waves on the shallow water and bit the skin of my face. A young man ran past us with gloves and shorts and woollen hat and a joyous bounding labrador.
To walk without a dog still feels like walking to no purpose, but at least today I had the promise of grammar. We spoke initially of this and that but I was itching to get to the guts.
"I am itching to get to the guts," I said. "What was the grammar question you wanted to ask?"
"It's an observation more than a question," she said. "People increasingly use the past participle when they need the past tense. I hate it."
"That noise you just heard," I said, "was 1000 readers fleeing. To drag them back you'll have to be specific. You and I may find it titillating to talk of past participles, but, strange as it may seem, others don't."
"Let me be more specific then," she said. "I keep hearing people say, 'I swum the river' or 'I seen him do it' or 'I sung the song.' It drives me crazy."
"Why? WHY? Because it's wrong, that's why. It's incorrect, an error, a fault, a mistake, a solebloodycism. And while I'm at it they don't just use the past participle when they need the past tense. They also use the past tense when they need the past participle."
"Do they now?"
"They do. I've never went to town, they say, or he's forgot his coat. I mean, I don't want to sound like an old fogey, but don't they teach them anything at school? My dear old English-teacher mother would have knocked it out of them in 15 seconds flat but she must now be spinning in her grave like a prop shaft."
"Are you sure?" I said.
"That my mother's spinning in her grave?"
"That it drives you crazy. Are you sure that underneath your scorn there isn't a sneaking delight in spotting someone else's error and a concomitant sense of superiority? I mean, consider the apostrophe. Its sole remaining use is as an instrument of snobbery. You and I are among the very few who bother to get it right. But it never worries me that others get it wrong because then I can look down on them. And there is no more pleasing direction to look at other people in than down."
"No," she said as we came out from behind a stand of ngaios and the wind whipped at our flesh, "I don't feel that. Rather it's a sense of falling standards and the sadness that induces. If the past participle goes can chaos be far behind? There have to be some rules."
"A hundred years ago," I said, "it was thought rude to step outside without a hat. Who said that that should change, and when? Nobody knows, but change it did. And it's the same with language. There are no rules. There are only conventions and conventions change."
"Nonsense," she said, "look in the dictionary. The past tense of the verb to swim is swam."
"If there had been a dictionary in Chaucer's day," I said, "it would have said the past tense of the verb to dare is durst. Dictionaries don't make rules. They just record the current state of play. There is no right or wrong or permanence. All living languages evolve as animals evolve, and though we all believe the language that we speak was at its best when we were young and any deviation from that golden norm is merely and inevitably decline, it isn't so. It's not the language's decline that we're bemoaning but our own."
I looked at her and there were tears in her eyes from the wind.
"I disagree," she said.