Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The past might be the future (and sophistry)

with 16 comments

Pilate Washing His Hands, Girolamo Romani

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, I’m three times as thick.

Just let that sentence wash over you for a moment; I’ll come back to it.

In the meantime, to explain my recent triple thickness, I couldn’t answer the following question:

The past tense in English always refers to the past. True or false?

The question arose as part of a course on teaching English as a foreign language. My answer (‘Yes, occasionally. Tea, anyone?’) didn’t quite pass the mustard.

The correct answer, you may be surprised to learn, is ‘false’. Look at the following sentence:

If I won the lottery, I’d never work again.

‘Won’ is obviously the past tense of ‘win’, but the sentence isn’t referring to something that has happened in the past (the speaker or writer hasn’t won the lottery).

In this case, the past tense of the verb ‘win’ is doing another job; it is being used (correctly) to imagine something that might happen in the future.

(To be technical, sentences containing clauses such as ‘If I won the lottery’ are given the grammatical label ‘conditional’.)

Three times as thick as…

Ah, yes, you spotted the fatal flaw in my opening sentence. To wit, it is meaningless. This came up because the following claim is emblazoned across a bottle of Carex hand wash I recently bought:

3X faster germ kill

Leaving aside the inelegant phraseology, the question left hanging is, of course, three times faster than what? A freight train? I had to scrutinise the back of the bottle with an extra-strength magnifier to discover that the product now works three times faster ‘than our previous hand wash’. Oh, I see, as fast as that. Is that fast?

Such sophistry really gets my goat, and so I have duly (and politely) emailed the good burgers of Carex (twice, because my first email was ignored, no idea why) to ask for some specific ‘germ kill’ timescales.

If I received a reply, I’d be very surprised. (<<< See what I did there?)

More tense talking


16 Responses

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  1. Deborah, you do surprise me, flunking that.

    “3X faster germ kill” There’s a similar ad for a surface cleaner that kills 99% of germs – or maybe 99.9% – either way it still leaves a sizeable colony to repopulate at the drop of a jam butty.


    11/05/2011 at 12:53 pm

    • …doesn’t kill one per cent of all known germs!!!!

      Oh, now I see why I never got a job in an advertising agency.

      I flunk lots of things. I know far less than I don’t know. The other interesting thing, now I come to think about it, is that there are different types of knowing. You can know something instinctively and be able apply the instinctive knowledge correctly, but actually thinking about that knowledge consciously and explaining it in words of one syllable using correct terminology is a different matter.

      Interestingly, (you’ve got me started now) this thought ties in with the hypothesis set out in John Lehrer’s book The Decisive Moment, in which he explains how the brain can make people who are experts in their field (singers/actors/sportsmen and women etc) ‘choke’ if they start to consciously analyse and think about what they are doing. This activity somehow overrides all their deepseated skill and experience because conscious thought disables the person’s instinctive knowledge and abilities.

      Plus — I’m three times as thick.


      11/05/2011 at 1:52 pm

      • “…the brain can make people who are experts in their field (singers/actors/sportsmen and women etc) ‘choke’ if they start to consciously analyse and think about what they are doing.”

        Quite. I have the same problem with writing.

        For the most part, I don’t even think about what I’m writing – I know what subject I want to write about, the brain-hands-keyboard interface does the rest pretty much on autopilot. I can knock out a couple of thousand words with very little in the way of conscious thought. If the phone rings, it doesn’t break my concentration, because I’m not concentrating, but it does interrupt the flow if I answer it – so often I don’t.

        For me, writing is much like reading – if I start to focus on individual words, the process stalls – I just have to go with the flow, and not think about it too much until it’s finished.

        And I never rewrite, beyond correcting errors, or changing the odd clunky word or punctuation.

        It also has the advantage that everything (and I confess, this sentence is an afterthought), gets read and checked for errors, even this, which has had one punctuation correction, and a sentence moved to a different paragraph where the fit was better.

        Even for a humble blog comment, like this, you get my best effort. 😉 But why not?

        So, yes, I’m with the actors; there is such a thing as paying too much attention.

        And if this seems a tad rambling, it’s because I had a Dead Zone moment and what I was going to say is lost.


        11/05/2011 at 3:49 pm

        • QED!

          The Lehrer book is very interesting. It begins with a fascinating extended analysis of the final 81 seconds of the 2002 Super Bowl (the greatest upset in NFL history), focusing on the crucial (unconscious) decisions made during that brief time by quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is quoted as saying: ‘I don’t know how I know where to pass.’


          11/05/2011 at 4:17 pm

          • The best decisions are often instinctive.


            11/05/2011 at 5:31 pm

  2. This post is three times as interesting.

    I don’t know who has the hardest time: people learning English as a foreign language, or those teaching it.

    Lizi Brown

    11/05/2011 at 1:50 pm

    • Hi, Lizi

      Current statistics show that learners find it twice as hard, while teachers double the number they first thought of.

      Thanks for your comment which is at least three times as funny.

      (OK, that’s enough. Ed.)


      11/05/2011 at 2:19 pm

  3. Breaking news: reply from Carex:

    Thank you for your interest in Carex and our product claims. The purpose of the 3x faster claim was to highlight that NEW Carex handwash is a more effective antibacterial handwash than the previous generation – a technical performance improvement. We have found it non-trivial to explain an antibacterial performance improvement in terms that are meaningful to the average consumer and deliver this clearly and succinctly on the front of the pack. Consumer research revealed that many people believe handwashes work instantly – a misconception, which led us to the TV advert we ran earlier this year. The advert we ran on TV stated:

    “Whatever your hands get up to this ad-break, you should know that some anti-bacterial hand washes can take up to 5 minutes to kill bacteria . New faster acting Carex kills 99.9% of bacteria in just seconds”

    The purpose of this was to indicate some handwashes take a surprisingly long time to actually kill bacteria, and that NEW Carex is effective in seconds, in the time we typically wash for. But how long do we wash for and therefore how many second is “seconds”? Hand wash is first and foremost used to cleanse and remove soils and bacteria, therefore we first need to consider the wash time needed to ensure hands are cleansed during washing. The World Health Organisation suggests that washing soiled hands should take 40-60 seconds if thoroughly following the recommended method of hand washing, and the UK-NHS suggests hands should be washed for a minimum of 15 seconds. So the period in which the product should be effective is 15 to 60 seconds, but realistically, 15 seconds is the realistic target.

    The 3x faster claim in effect is a simple extraction of the “faster acting” statement which is what we are promoting on the packs. Our data to support these claims was reviewed and approved by Clearcast, the independent agency that ensures TV marketing adverts are technically supported.


    11/05/2011 at 4:23 pm

  4. Nine out of ten read this.

    Invisible Mikey

    11/05/2011 at 4:52 pm

    • The Wordwatch Towers resident statistician (the butler) had calculated it out to about 9.5, but we won’t quibble.


      11/05/2011 at 5:06 pm

      • So Carex leaves a small bug population for recolonisation too. Or does it leave 0.1% to be killed off more slowly? If so, how long?

        Am I tempting providence asking this – will it generate more marketing tosh?

        And is it me or is “3 times faster than what?” question still in limbo?


        11/05/2011 at 5:41 pm

  5. ‘…realistically, 15 seconds is the realistic target.’

    Sometimes, Ron, I think you don’t read things properly.


    11/05/2011 at 5:59 pm

    • They had to clear the phrase through their Department of Redundancy Department.

      Do you mean to say that Ron reads improperly? Like with the book upside-down, looking at it in a mirror, or perhaps attempting to read it by sense of smell?

      Invisible Mikey

      11/05/2011 at 6:46 pm

      • You are quite right to pick me up on my imprecise use of language, what with this purporting to be a grammar blog and all. I should, of course, have said:

        Sometimes, I don’t think you read proper like what I do.

        (I keep laughing at your Department of Redundancy Department.)


        11/05/2011 at 7:43 pm

    • Huh?


      11/05/2011 at 7:24 pm

  6. This may make sense to you. If you have any questions about it, I’m kind of unavailable right now.

    From The New York Times’ After Deadline column:

    “The computer, known as “K Computer,” is three times faster than a Chinese rival that previously held the top position, said Jack Dongarra, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who keeps the official rankings of computer performance.”

    The stylebook advises against this ambiguous construction:

    times less, times more. Writers who speak of three times more or three times faster often mean “multiplied by 3,” but precise readers are likely to understand the meaning as “multiplied by 4”: the original quantity or speed, plus three more times. For clarity, avoid times more, times faster, times bigger, etc. Write four times as much (or as fast, etc.). And do not write times less or times smaller (or things like times as thin or times as short). A quantity can decrease only one time before disappearing, and then there is nothing left to decrease further. Make it one-third as much (or as tall, or as fast).


    04/07/2011 at 12:00 pm

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