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June 8th, 2005

Not to mention / have done or am done?

by Barbara Wallraff

Joshua Mandel, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “What is the meaning of the phrase ‘not to mention’? It seems completely meaningless, given that anything we’re supposed not to mention is always mentioned.”

Dear Joshua: I know what you mean. But “not to mention” is an example of a rhetorical device that’s been part of English for hundreds of years -- so somebody must find it useful. (Less useful are the device’s names; still, you might get a kick out of knowing them: apophasis and paralipsis.) Other examples include “to say nothing of” and “I need not remind you.” Reference sources that discuss such phrases often say they’re a form of irony. That they’re meant this way isn’t always clear when you see or hear them. But sometimes an ironic tone really is appropriate. Here, for instance, is a sentence from a newspaper article about a, um, Duct Tape Festival taking place in Avon, Ohio, this month: “There will be a parade and fireworks and a car show and bands and the announcement of the duct-tape father of the year, not to mention displays of duct-tape sculpture and duct-tape crafts displays.” Enough said?

Marilyn Millward, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, writes: “The word ‘done,’ as I know it, is a past form of the verb ‘do.’ It requires the use of ‘have,’ as in ‘I have done ...’ Now everyone I meet seems to use ‘done’ for the past of the word ‘finish,’ without ‘have’: ‘Are you done with that?’ I tell my grandchildren if they are ‘done,’ that is the end of them. I say they may have done the dishes or have done their homework, but they can’t have ‘done’ their dinner because they didn’t ‘do’ their dinner in the first place.”

Dear Marilyn: People who care about how their grandchildren speak help the language as well as the grandchildren. If English is going to behave itself in the future, grandparents will need to be involved. But in this case, I’m sorry to tell you, you’re being too strict.

Of course you’re right that “done” can be used with “have.” And “have done” indicates an action that is completed at the present time -- as in “I have done the dishes.” So this verb tense is called the present perfect even though, as you say, it relates to the past. (As I’m sure you know, the past tense of “do” is “did,” and the past-perfect tense is “had done.”) But “done” can also be an adjective -- as in “The dishes are done” or, gulp, “Are you done with that?”

This doesn’t make “done” an especially unusual word. English has many adjectives that come from verbs. Another one happens to be “finished.” In “I am finished with dinner,” the word “finished” is an adjective. Grammatically, the sentence is like “I am happy with his cooking.” But in “I have finished with dinner,” “have finished” is a verb, in the present-perfect tense. (This kind of thing is the reason diagramming sentences can be mind-boggling.)

Whether your grandchildren “did” their dinner or not, then, they can indeed “be done” with it. And now maybe we are finished, have finished and are done with this subject.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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