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russell smith

"It's hard to see how Harper loses the next election," read a headline for a newspaper column a couple of weeks ago. The idiom is not part of standard written English. Students of English as a second language are taught to use a future tense to talk about the future: "It's hard to see how Harper will lose the next election." But this use of the present tense – when describing possible or conditional events in the past or the future – is a conversational idiom that has become quite widespread only recently. I've mentioned this before in this space, but with the examples now spreading from casual conversation to the written word, I have proof. Here's another interesting thing: I don't know who wrote the headline above, but I'd bet a cappuccino it was a male.

"If he slides with his feet a little more forward, he would've been safe." This is how baseball player Jose Bautista described an incident of the night before to a reporter. The awkwardness of this idiom really struck me when he repeated the words in a different order later on: "I think he would've been safe if he slides correctly." Bautista was describing events in the past. The standard English way of describing a conditional event in the past would be this: "If he had slid, he would've been safe." But Bautista's unusual choice of verb tenses for a conditional sentence – "slides" in the present – is actually quite common in the world of sports, and thus in the world of guys.

You'd know this if you watched a lot of sports. "In that last play, he just eases up on the throw a little bit and he has six points." That means: If the quarterback had thrown the ball a little softer, he would have scored a touchdown. Now, after years of influence by television, whenever a group of straight males get together, they start to speak in primitive conditionals like this too: "Bro, you hit the gas back there and we're through this light right now!" (If you had hit the gas a second earlier we would have made the green light.) It seems particularly prevalent when competition is in the air.

How do I know it comes from sports? Because sportscasters first started talking that way under the influence of video replay. A play happens, the play-by-play guy describes it as it happens. Then we watch a replay and the colour commentator describes it again as it reoccurs in slow-motion – in the present tense. "See, here, his toe crosses the line.... if his knee is down here, the play is dead." But the scene has already happened.

Wisecracking sports commentators are cool and technology is cool too: It's a perfect alpha-male combination.

And then, as we see with the political headline example, we start talking this way about the future too. Both uses occur in situations of uncertainty: "No way Harper loses" means "we don't know if Harper will win; I'm betting he will." It's not a coincidence, I think, that the language of political analysts shares some of the tropes of sports: There are parallels between elections and games, and the tone of the experienced Ottawa pundit frequently reflects a certain amusement that can sound like the cynicism of the betting man. In short, it's a horse race. I don't hear anyone talking about the Syrian civil war in this glib tone. And I don't read the present-conditional usage in articles about fashion or poetry. It's a tough-guy thing.

Is there any benefit, any improvement in accuracy, any poetic advantage, effected by guyspeak? Well, it certainly simplifies the English verb tenses that give us such a headache. Later in the same baseball interview, Bautista says "If the pitcher would've recognized it earlier and he would've just gotten out easily, then obviously it's a bad play." Grammarians will be smacking their foreheads at this point. But that confused mess of auxiliary verbs is actually becoming standard usage. A simple present to refer to all hypothetical past or future actions actually sounds more elegant to me than that mess does. No, the problem with guyspeak is not one of confused meaning or grammar – it's just that, like so many slick expressions from the corporate world, it just sounds so faux-cool, so too-much-hair-gel, so cellphoney, so much like television.