“Haunted by what I did:” English irregular verbs, and some metaphors

“No matter our intentions, lawyers like me were complicit. We owe the country our honesty about what we saw — and should do in the future.”

Irregular past-tense verbs in English are typically high-frequency–that is, compared to other verbs, they occur relatively often. Zipf’s Law captures the fact that most verbs, like most nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, occur only rarely, right? It also captures the fact that a very small number of words occur quite often, and some of these are verbs with irregular past tenses. It’s a problem for non-native speakers, because they give you a lot of opportunities to fuck up, and the better you speak English, the more people notice those little mistakes.

So: today, let’s practice production of English verbs that are irregular in the past tense. Today we’ll look at an opinion piece from the New York Times, America’s newspaper de référence. It talks about a government lawyer’s experiences in the past, so there are plenty of past-tense verbs. In the text, I’ll replace past-tense verbs with their base forms–your task is to convert them to their past tense. We’ll focus on these:

InfinitiveSingularPlural
to bewaswere
to makemademade
to burstburstburst
to leaveleftleft
Some English verbs with irregular past tenses. To burst has an “umarked” past tense–that is, its past tense is the same as its basic form.

…and along the way, we’ll cover some vocabulary items, as well. The article, titled ‘I’m haunted by what I did’ as a lawyer in the Trump Justice Department, is by Erica Newland. It appeared in today’s New York Times (December 21st, 2020). Ready? C’est parti !

I be an attorney at the Justice Department when Donald Trump was elected president. I worked in the Office of Legal Counsel, which is where presidents turn for permission slips that say their executive orders and other contemplated actions are lawful. I joined the department during the Obama administration, as a career attorney whose work was supposed to be independent of politics.

All three tokens of be are in the third-person singular, so: was. Vocabulary items:

  • attorney: a lawyer. The term attorney is typically used in official contexts; lawyer is everyday language.
  • counsel: advice. It is the standard term in a legal context, and can also refer to an attorney themself. (My Oregonian dialect does some weird things with pronouns. It’s one of the few things about my regional accent that an American would notice–Oregonian pronunciation and syntax are mostly the typical forms of the northern regions of the continent.)
  • to contemplate: to consider; to think about. Very formal language, not common in speech.

I never harbored delusions about a Trump presidency. Mr. Trump readily volunteered that his agenda be to disassemble our democracy, but I made a choice to stay at the Justice Department — home to some of the country’s finest lawyers — for as long as I could bear it. I believed that I could better serve our country by pushing back from within than by keeping my hands clean. But I have come to reconsider that decision.

Be is again in the 3rd person singular, so: was. The past tense of to make is made, regardless of number or person. Vocabulary:

  • to harbor delusions: A delusion is a false belief. In its most central sense, it is one that comes from insanity. Less centrally, it can refer to something that is a form of self-deception. To harbor in this case means to have. In its most central sense, it is an intransitive verb, and its subject is a ship or other waterborne vessel. Its meaning in that case is to rest in a harbor, which is more or less by definition safe. In the transitive sense in which it is used here, it means to keep something safe, typically something that is in some sense illicit and/or being pursued by someone who would do it harm. So, you might harbor fugitives, or criminals, or refugees. In this expression, delusion works as an object of the verb because a delusion is inherently a bad thing, coming as it does from mental illness or from self-deception.
  • to volunteer that [+ assertion]: to say something without prompting, without even being asked a question about it. Yes, this is very different from the usual sense of the word to volunteer, and to evoke (as linguists say) this meaning, you need to have that [some assertion] after it.

My job be to tailor the administration’s executive actions to make them lawful — in narrowing them, I could also make them less destructive. I remained committed to trying to uphold my oath even as the president refused to uphold his.

Yep, it’s was again! Some vocabulary:

  • to tailor: in its central sense, this verb refers to what a tailor does. Think of cutting and sewing something so that it fits a particular person. In this case, the attorney is to tailor the president’s orders so that they would be legal.
  • executive action: things that are done in one’s capacity as president. The word executive is used in a political sense to refer specifically to the president, the head of the executive branch of the US government, as opposed to the legislative branch, which makes our laws, or the judicial branch, which makes decisions about what is and is not legal.

But there be a trade-off: We attorneys diminished the immediate harmful impacts of President Trump’s executive orders — but we also made them more palatable to the courts.

Yep: was again. Oh, and make. Nice of me to give you lots of practice on these, hein?

This burst into public view early in the Trump administration in the litigation over the executive order banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, which my office approved. The first Muslim ban was rushed out the door. It was sweeping and sloppy; the courts quickly put a halt to it. The successive discriminatory bans benefited from more time and attention from the department’s lawyers, who narrowed them but also made them more technocratic and therefore harder for the courts to block.

To burst has an unmarked past tense: burst.

After the Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision upholding the third Muslim ban, I reviewed my own portfolio — which included matters targeting noncitizens, dismantling the Civil Service and camouflaging the president’s corruption — overcome with fear that I was doing more harm than good. By Thanksgiving of that year, I had left my job.

The past tense of to leave is left. Yes, it is a homonym of the opposite of the adjective right. Technically, I had left is a past perfect construction, but the form of the verb is the same, so I have thrown it in gratis.

Still, I felt I was abandoning the ship. I continued to believe that a critical mass of responsible attorneys staying in government might provide a last line of defense against the administration’s worst instincts. Even after I left, I advised others that they could do good by staying. News reports about meaningful pushback by Justice Department attorneys seemed to confirm this thinking.

Yep: was again, and the past tense of to leave is left. .

I was wrong.

Was, once again. And… perhaps this is enough practice for one day? In any case, it’s time for breakfast. I leave you with the rest of the article; at the end, I’ll throw in discussion of a couple of additional vocabulary items that the author chooses in order to extend the metaphors that he used earlier in the piece. I do encourage you to read it.

Watching the Trump campaign’s attacks on the election results, I now see what might have happened if, rather than nip and tuck the Trump agenda, responsible Justice Department attorneys had collectively — ethically, lawfully — refused to participate in President Trump’s systematic attacks on our democracy from the beginning. The attacks would have failed.

Unlike the Trump Justice Department, the Trump campaign has relied on second-rate lawyers who lack the skills to maintain the president’s charade. After a recent oral argument from Rudy Giuliani, Judge Matthew Brann (a Republican) wrote that the campaign had offered “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.” Even judges appointed by Mr. Trump have refused to throw their lots in with lawyers who can’t master the basic mechanics of lawyering.

After four years of bulldozing through one institution after another on the backs of skilled lawyers, the Trump agenda hit a brick wall.

The story of the Trump campaign’s attack on our elections could have been the story of the Trump administration’s four-year-long attack on our institutions. If, early on, the Justice Department lawyers charged with selling the administration’s lies had emptied the ranks — withholding our talents and reputations and demanding the same of our professional peers — the work of defending President Trump’s policies would have been left to the types of attorneys now representing his campaign. Lawyers like Mr. Giuliani would have had to defend the Muslim ban in court.

Had that happened, judges would have likely dismantled the Trump facade from the beginning, stopping the momentum of his ugliest and most destructive efforts and bringing much-needed accountability early in his presidency.

Before the 2020 election, I was haunted by what I didn’t do. By all the ways I failed to push back enough. Now, after the 2020 election, I’m haunted by what I did. The trade-off wasn’t worth it.

In giving voice to those trying to destroy the rule of law and dignifying their efforts with our talents and even our basic competence, we enabled that destruction. Were we doing enough good elsewhere to counterbalance the harm we facilitated, the way a public health official might accommodate the president on the margins to push forward on vaccine development? No.

No matter our intentions, we were complicit. We collectively perpetuated an anti-democratic leader by conforming to his assault on reality. We may have been victims of the system, but we were also its instruments. No matter how much any one of us pushed back from within, we did so as members of a professional class of government lawyers who enabled an assault on our democracy — an assault that nearly ended it.

We owe the country our honesty about that and about what we saw. We owe apologies. I offer mine here.

And we owe our best efforts to restore our democracy and to share what we learned to help mobilize and enact reforms — to remind future government lawyers that when asked to undermine our democracy, the right course is to refuse and hold your peers to the same standard.

To lead by example, and do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again. If we don’t, it will.

To nip and tuck: to cut (nip) and to sew in such a way as to make something fit better. To nip and to tuck both have other meanings in other contexts. Recall the use of to tailor earlier in the piece–the use of to nip and tuck in reference to what the attorney did to executive actions has the effect of continuing that metaphor.

The picture of a tailor and his client is from the Mohan’s Custom Tailors web site. One little bit of additional vocabulary: a tailor is necessarily male; the female equivalent is seamstress.

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