With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations. But, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself.
Learning verb conjugations in any language requires memorization, practice, and more memorization. With commonly-studied languages, you can find books with page after page of verb conjugations; but, if you are trying to learn a less-commonly-studied language, you will need to put those together yourself. The process of practicing those conjugations is the same, though. I will show you a system here that I picked up from the textbook Português Contemporaneo, by Maria Abreu and Cléo Rameh.
Being a big believer in writing about what you don’t know, I will illustrate the process with Kaqchikel, a Mayan language spoken by 400,00–500,000 people in the western highlands of Guatemala. There is an excellent textbook on Kaqchikel, called ¿La ütz awäch?, by R. McKenna Brown, Judith Maxwell, Walter Little, and Angelika Bauer. Other didactic materials are hard to come by outside of Guatemala, though–and in particular, there is no 501 Kaqchikel Verbs. (Fat old fucks such as myself grew up using books of verb conjugations with the standard title X01 [language name] verbs, where X is typically a 2 or a 5–for example, 501 French Verbs. They were published by a company called Barron’s. Still are, although I wouldn’t swear that they sell very many copies these days.) Hence: this post. Ready? Let’s do this!
In Kaqchikel, that will be the following (at least to a first approximation):
Transitive verbs versus intransitive verbs
Verbs that start with consonants versus verbs that start with vowels
This is a very language-specific thing. Autrement dit: you have to do this for every language. In Spanish, the classes would be different:
Verbs that end with -ar in the infinitive, versus ones that end with -er and ones that end with -ir
Verbs that are regular in the tense that you’re learning, versus verbs that are irregular in that tense
In French, there would be so many categories that if a student working on an undescribed language told me that “their” language worked that way, I would tell them to go away and come back when they could prove it, ’cause languages like French just are not all that plausible. (The only similar one that I can think of is Dinka–1.3 million speakers in Sudan and South Sudan.)
Back to Kaqchikel… We’ll start with the intransitive verbs. (Left to my own devices, I prefer to start with transitive verbs, but the textbook that I’m using starts with the intransitives, and I’m gonna bet that the people who wrote the textbook known a hell of a lot more about how to learn Kaqchikel than I do.) The other thing that matters to us today is whether the verb starts with a consonant or with a vowel, and here I genuinely have no preferences, so we’ll start with the verbs that begin with consonants, just like the textbook does.)
I’m gonna start with the first person singular, i.e. “I,” because I know that that’s what my teacher will ask me about first. I am actually a fan of the third-person singular, i.e. “he/she/it,” when (trying to) learn a language where that’s a regular one. (The third person singular is not necessarily regular in any commonly understood sense of that word. It’s not difficult to find languages with over a dozen forms for the third person singular. Swahili (50-100 million speakers in East Africa–Swahili is so widely used as a lingua franca that it is difficult to know who to count as a speaker) is a common one, and has about 15, plus some more for plurals.)
So, the first-person singular of consonant-initial intransitive verbs: the marker is the prefix yi-. To practice it, I will put together a table like the following. The first row gives an example of what I need to do. You read it like this: when prompted with the verb wär, which means ‘sleep,’ add rïn yi- to it to make rïn yiwär, ‘I sleep.’ Then I have six repetitions. For each one, I cover up the answer, then do the thing, then uncover the answer to check whether I got it write. (Ummmm: right. Damn homophones…) Ready? Let’s do this shit!
Example: wär (sleep)
tzijon (to talk)
käm (to die)
k’ask’o’ (to recover from an illness)
You see the system? Now I’ll try the second-person singular, i.e. “you.” This time, we’re going to add ratya-.
Second person singular present tense, vowel-initial intransitive verbs
Now it’s time to mix the two together:
rat/k’ask’o’ (recover from an illness)
…and, then we add in the third-person singular, and we’re done for the day–plurals can wait until tomorrow. If you don’t want to slog through those with me, I’ll just point you towards these videos on the conjugation of intransitive verbs in Kaqchikel–if you do want to do some slogging, page down past the video links!
Videos about intransitive verb conjugation in Kaqchikel:
The picture at the top of this post shows eight Kaqchikel women from the village of San Marcos La Laguna, in the Lake Atitlán region. They were recipients of a micro-loan that enabled them to go into business selling the fabric that they make at home. Their clothes are the everyday wear of Kaqchikel women in that area. Picture source: here.
Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?
While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.” Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?
BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound. My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits. Two questions come to mind for me:
1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds. 2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it. Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs. More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds.
The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.
Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as a stupid question.
To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. (See the English notes below for an explanation of the various and sundry linguistic oddities in that sentence.) I have trained myself to spend very little time on social media, and now that my native land no longer has a president who does not seem to be clear on the facts that Australia is our friend but Russia isn’t, and has complete and sole control over the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, I typically don’t check the newspapers more than twice a day. Quora, though–it can suck me down rabbit holes for hours. It lets people pose questions. Anyone. On anything. Anything. And anyone who feels like answering, can.
A common saying in English: there’s no such thing as a stupid question. When do people say it? When other people start questions with something like “this is a stupid question, but…” …followed by a question. There’s certainly some truth to that. In fact, asking “stupid” questions was the only way that I survived graduate school. Graduate students tend to be terrified to ask any question that they fear might reveal that they don’t know everything. But, since I am covered with tattoos (not unusual for young folks these days, but very unusual for people of my advanced age), I go through life on the assumption that everybody assumes I’m stupid anyway, so why not ask questions? As one of my professors said to me in a very short note that accompanied my A- grade in Syntax 102, which was much higher than I actually deserved: You asked the questions that other people were afraid to ask.
So, yeah: you, Dear Reader, are smart, and if you have a question, other people around you do, too. They won’t think that you’re stupid if you ask it–they might very well thank you for asking it.
So, yeah: the “no such thing as a stupid question” claim is not totally without merit. Absolutes are not often correct, and “no such thing” is most definitely an absolute. My personal candidate for questions that truly are stupid would be questions that assume something that is completely wrong, without any apparent awareness of the assumption. Case in point: this question that I ran across on Quora today…
In fact, the Paris metro does not always stink. But, more pertinently: people are not allowed to pee on the Paris metro. Responses to this kind of stupid question should begin by countering the false assumption, as does this one:
…and with that rant off my chest, it’s time to step outside with a cup of coffee to enjoy a fine American tobacco product and watch the lizards frolic, ’cause Louisiana. But, first: English notes!
To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me.
cash cow: something that produces a lot of income very reliably.
to make a mint: to make a lot of money. A mint is a place where money is (physically) produced. Where bills are printed, where coins are struck. (Now there’s an obscure lexical item for ya!) The expression has some weird behaviors related to the verb to make, but before we get to them, let’s see its basic use:
Hey now, that film was game-changing. Do you realise how many genuinely terrible found footage films we would probably have been denied if Blair Witch hadn’t come out of nowhere and made a mint? Source: this tweet
My sister, a former rare book dealer, made a MINT selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont. They’d last 6-18 months… Source: this tweet
when this dude retires, he’s gonna make a mint doing sports talk in pittsburgh. i don’t mean that as a compliment. Source: this tweet.
In the last two examples, we see that you can specify what was done to make the money: selling new retirees bulk stock to open the used bookstore of their dreams in Vermont,doing sports talk in Pittsburgh.
There is another way to specify what caused that money to be made. In this case, you will use something that is a noun (or close to one), introduced by off of, or just off:
My paternal grandfather made a lot of money off of attractive young women. (True–family scandal.)
I made no money at all off of the sale of my first house. (Sadly, also true.)
You can’t make money off dreams. (Not true.)
So, now we go back to the first sentence of this blog post: To the extent that the attention economy is a major cash cow, Quora is making a mint off of me. Clear now?
The notions of cash cows and of making money off of things reminds me of this vignette from Jacque Prévert’s epic poem Encore une fois sur le fleuveand its “gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs”:
Et la Seine continue son chemin
et passe sous le pont Saint-Michel
d’où l’on peut voir de loin
l’archange et le démon et le bassin
avec qui passent devant eux
une vieille faiseuse d’anges un boy-scout malheureux
et un triste et gros vieux monsieur qui a fait une misérable fortune dans les beurres et dans les œufs Et celui-là s’avance d’un pas lent vers la Seine en regardant les tours de Notre-Dame Et cependant
ni l’église ni le fleuve ne l’intéressent mais seulement la vieille boîte d’un bouquiniste Et il s’arrête figé et fasciné devant l’image d’une petite fille couverte de papier glacé
Elle est en tablier noir et son tablier est relevé une religieuse aux yeux cernés la fouette
Et la cornette de la sœur est aussi blanche que les dessous de la fillette Mais comme le bouquiniste regarde le vieux monsieur congestionné celui-ci gêné détourne les yeux et laissant là le pauvre livre obscène
Google Images is not the *best* thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes.
Google Images is not the best thing to happen to language learning, but it’s pretty fucking good sometimes. Case in point: today I wanted to know what joufflu means in French. I might forget the definition I read, but I won’t soon forget the pictures that Google Images gave me when I searched for it:
Le Président, joufflu aux pommettes rosées, l’air austère, me regarde dans les yeux sans laisser paraître aucun sentiment.
I wanted to check my guess that a cuistot is closer to a short-order cook than to a chef–Google Images pretty much confirmed it:
You’re confused because WordReference says that a flingue is a gun, but the Frenchies around you keep using it to refer to pistols? Google Images will straighten you out–turns out WordReference doesn’t quite have it right this time:
Is, as they say, a picture worth a thousand words? As a scientist, I’m always skeptical of exact numbers, but it’s certainly worth a lot of definitions…
Joufflu is a noun–there’s also a feminine form, joufflue. According to my Quillet (a damn nice dictionary, by the way), it’s a person qui a les joues pleines. As far as I know, there is no equivalent noun in English. We would use the adjective chubby-cheeked if we didn’t mean anything bad by it, and jowly, from the noun jowl, if we did.
Now, I know what you’re about to ask: does the noun jowl come from joue (French for “cheek”)? I mean, we stole, like, 80% of our vocabulary from French (the percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the contents of a good dictionary or the (relatively) common vocabulary of everyday life–we rarely escape from Zipf’s Law), so why not this word, looking as much like joue as it does?
Merriam-Webster says otherwise. It’s helpful here to know that the noun jowl has multiple, but related, meanings. Here’s the most common one:
usually slack flesh (such as a dewlap, wattle, or the pendulous part of a double chin) associated with the cheeks, lower jaw, or throat
Merriam-Webster entry 1
Note that it includes the cheeks–that’s why it comes to mind for me in this context–but, other parts, too. Most pertinent to the current question: the throat. For this specific meaning, Merriam-Webster postulates the following etymology:
alteration of Middle English cholle, probably from Old English ceole throat
Where it gets surprising to me is that the second entry has a different etymology for a related, but different, sense. Here’s entry 2 for jowl:
alteration of Middle English chavel, from Old English ceafl; akin to Middle High German kivel jaw, Avestan zafar- mouth
…and yet again, Merriam-Webster
Two distinct etymologies for two pretty clearly related senses of the same word? Well: we are occasionally visited here by an actual lexicologist, and a good one (with whom I had the pleasure of having a nice cup of coffee a couple weeks ago, but that’s another story). See the comments below for his response (I hope)!
…and one more thing, and I’ll shut up. Here’s a recording of Henri Charrière, author of the quote that I gave you above for the word joufflu. Charming Ardèche accent (I think it’s ardèchois–Phil d’Ange?):
I like this little poem by Luis de Lión. Quite a bit, actually. Why? And is it even a poem, per se?
Matthew Zapruder, in his very readable book Why Poetry, maintains that the important question is less “is this a poem?” than “what makes something poetic?” I can dig it–personally, I usually find questions less interesting than the meta-question “How could I know the answer, one way or the other?”
One of his answers is that poeticalness (not sure that’s a word, but spell-correct isn’t hating it) comes from doing the unexpected with language; that when you experience something as poetic, per se, you are reacting to that unexpectedness.
One of the primary sources of that unexpectedness is the combination of words that you would not normally expect to go together. A favorite example, from Daniela Gîfu’s Ianuar:
Hope being wrathful? Wrath that is angelic? Completely unexpected–and my favorite lines of the poem.
The unexpectedness of the language of a poem does not have to come from its vocabulary; unexpected mixes of style can do it, as well. And that’s how I read de Lión’s poem. When you start out with this very artistic language:
…which very much reminds me of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:
…and with the poem’s self-consciously (to me, at any rate) poetic beginning, the last thing I would expect is the very spoken-language line that follows:
There is a soft spot in my heart for poets who kick ass. Not in the sense of poètes qui déchirent, who are good poets, but in the sense of poets who will be violent when that is what is required to protect good and defeat evil. Henry Reed, Guillaume Apollinaire, Randall Jarrell, … You’ve read all of their poetry here. Luis de Léon was such a man. From Wikipedia:
Being of Kaqchikel origin, he belonged to an ethnic group that was subject to horrible depradations by the government and by right-wing civilian militia groups. The a priori vulnerability of being Kaqchikel did not stop him from acting. I haven’t come across any evidence–or even the suggestion–that de Lión ever took up arms. (I did read the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry on him, and found nothing there.) I suggest that he did something more courageous: unarmed, he very openly opposed a murderous dictatorship. Wikipedia again:
This was during the brutal Guatemalan civil war of 1960-1996. (Your dates may vary.) From Wikipedia:
That left plenty of time for torture, but that is not something that we are likely to know about, one way or the other. You will find this brave man’s picture at the top of this post.
These are dark times in the United States. I can usually stop complaining about my problems by reminding myself that they are, after all, First World Problems. I couldn’t get the lane that I wanted at the rifle range; I can’t get my new iPhone to pair with my car’s audio system; ammunition rations are down to three boxes a day again. Now, for the first time in my life, I have real problems. Third World Problems. My country is being ravaged by a disease due to gross presidential incompetence. Worse: a mob just attacked one of the three branches of the national government; the battle flag of the secessionist forces from our very own Civil War was paraded–for the first time ever–in our Capitol building. The attack was encouraged by our very own president, who did not condemn it until it was defeated and the Capitol retaken. It is said that he watched, hopefully, while the attack was happening. I wasn’t there, nor do I know anyone who was; unfortunately, that behavior would be pretty consistent with everything that we have seen from him over the course of the past four years.
Unlike the current president (until noon tomorrow as I write this), I served in the US military. My enlistment contract had an expiration date; my oath of enlistment–to protect the Constitution of the United States of America, from enemies both foreign and domestic–did not. I have my responsibilities. Luis de Lión had his, and I suspect that they required more courage than mine do. Yours might not be the same as either of ours–but, I encourage you to figure out what they are. And to fulfill them.
Hike a zombie up on your hip for a big harai goshi, and he’s probably going to bite you in the left tit as he sails right over it. But: sweep his foot, and he’s goin’ down.
We don’t bark as much as we used to.
People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, take natural selection. Survival of the fittest, right? But, what does “fit” mean? People got so caught up in that whole “nature red in tooth and claw” thing. But, “fitness” is more than, like, Cross-Fit. (“The first rule of Cross-Fit: Always talk about Cross-Fit.”) It’s fitness for an environment, for a context. Resources suddenly get scarce? Fitness can mean being small, needing fewer calories–I bet you don’t see a lot of large terrestrial mammals in your neighborhood. Competition for breeding females just got stiffer? Fitness can mean just looking hotter–peacocks didn’t evolve those big-ass tails because they let you fly better, believe you me. Fitness is a complicated concept, and people have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. They used to, anyways–the people with ignorant ideas are mostly dead now.
We don’t bark as much as we used to. People sometimes punished us if we barked at the wrong times, but a lot of people liked having a barking dog around. Scare away the bad guys, make the neighbors think you’re a badass–always a good thing, right? But: no. Fitness is relative to a context, and contexts change. And that’s when natural selection happens. Your environment changes, and suddenly fitness means something new. Bark at a bad guy, and he’ll probably go away. Bark at a zombie, and it just tells the rest of them where to find you. Get found by a bunch of zombies, and your days of passing on your genes are over.
People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, Chad. My former master. I loved him limitlessly and unconditionally. He had a car. He learned how to drive before he bought it, right? He also had a pistol. He was gonna learn how to use it–after he bought it. Well… he did get around to buying it. The night that the thing that apparently used to be an emergency room nurse showed up with a bite missing out of its forearm and an insatiable appetite for human flesh came crashing through the bay window, he didn’t even know how to take the safety off. Christ…it never even occurred to him that you can usually take care of a lone zombie with a pistol just by SMACKING IT UPSIDE THE FUCKING HEAD WITH IT. I tried to tell him. But, he never really thought to listen to other people–certainly not to a Blue Heeler mix. He can be so frustratingly ignorant. Well, he used to–the ignorant people are mostly dead now.
We don’t bark as much as we used to. The thing to be today: a pointer. I used to have this buddy. A German shorthair. His master used to laugh at him because he would point at butterflies. His master used to laugh at him because he would point at his fucking water dish. Now his master is dead. My buddy? Now people bring him bitches in heat. To fuck. Can you imagine people bringing you bitches in heat to fuck? I remember an old Saturday Night Live sketch where John Belushi gets so excited about the idea of being able to walk into an Amsterdam cafe and buy a bowl of hashish that he goes into convulsions and falls off of his chair. That’s how I feel about the idea of people bringing me bitches in heat. To fuck. Bummer that I’m fixed. Lucky unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn shitty fucking goddamn unfixed pointers. Lucky goddamn shitty fucking goddamnit goddamnit goddamnit-to-fucking-hell lucky fucking unfixed piece of shit fucking unfixed pointers…. Wait, I gotta pick myself up off the floor…
People have the most ignorant ideas sometimes. Like, take judo. People thought that it would be useless in the case of a zombie apocalypse. Sure–hike a zombie up on your hip for a big harai goshi, and he’s probably going to bite you in the left tit as he sails right over it. But: sweep his foot, and he’s goin’ down–zombies are not super-agile. “Old man’s judo,” they called the ashi waza, the “foot techniques.” But, they’re perfect for escaping from a zombie or five. “You want a real dog, get a Doberman pinscher or a Rottweiller, not a funny-looking Blue Heeler mix.” But Dobies and Rotts–they bark. Blue Heelers? Why the fuck do you think they call us “heelers?” We’re shepherds. We go for the feet. Go for a zombie’s foot, and he’s goin’ down. Dog judo. People are so ignorant sometimes. Well, they used to be–the ignorant ones are dead now.
This is a work of fiction. The zombie apocalypse is not here–yet. Scroll down a bit for demonstrations of the judo techniques that came up in the story.
I’ve read it on a guided missile cruiser; in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; …
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 children’s novel A wizard of Earthsea. A children’s novel, yes, and I first read it as a child. I’ve also read it on watch in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser; stretched out in a sleeping bag on the floor of a just-got-divorced-and-don’t-yet-have-furniture apartment; most recently, deep into my 50s and huddled under a blanket taking refuge from the Colorado deep-winter cold. The children’s novel takes a position on the relationship between language and meaning that has been debated back and forth since Socrates–no wonder I became a linguist.
Before her death in 2018, Le Guin finished a book of poetry: So far so good. (Reminds me of the French joke about the guy falling out a window, with the punchline jusqu’ici, tout va bien–probably not an accident.) Here’s a little gem from it, titled Company:
A paw, a questing nose half waken me,
and I let him get under the covers.
He curls up and purrs himself asleep.
Cats are less troublesome than lovers.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Company”
Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed.
It’s always worth the trouble to read a poem aloud–I didn’t even realize that covers/lovers rhymes until I did so.
Poeticality comes in part from unexpected word combinations. But, “unexpected” is very context-dependent–you wouldn’t be shocked if I used the word alliteration in a post about poetry, but it would probably surprise you if it appeared in an essay about that time I climbed the wall of a ravine to get to a Port-A-Potty. (It didn’t end well.)
Things could be otherwise. Take the last sentence of the poem–Cats are less troublesome than lovers–and put it at the beginning. The result makes every bit as much narrative sense as Le Guin’s version–maybe even more so. But, as a poem, it would kinda suck.
Why, if that last sentence gives you a better narrative at the beginning of the poem, does it give you a better poem when it occurs at the end? I think it’s related to an unexpected word combination. Specifically: when you’ve got a poem that’s mostly monosyllables and so far has had no word over two syllables long, troublesome packs quite a punch. Define the context in in terms of word length, and troublesome stands out quite a bit from a bunch of mono- and bisyllables.
It bears repeating: Le Guin, writing this at the age of 88, was still thinking about what it’s like to have a man in your bed. I wish I’d known her.
“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:
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.
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 rushedout 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.