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June 28th, 2006

This year and this decade / had had

by Barbara Wallraff

Daniel J. Lang, of Wynantskill, N.Y., writes: “There was much dispute about how to refer to the first decade of the new millennium. I’ve taken to saying ‘This is two-six,’ meaning 2006. I expect I’ll say ‘twenty-ten’ when I get there (2010). Is there any resolution to how we should refer to these times?”

Dear Daniel: People have been wondering what to call the current decade since well before it began. Many possibilities have been floated -- for instance, “the ohs,” “the aughts,” “the zilches,” “the naughties” and “the preteens.” The cuter the name, of course, the less likely people are to take it seriously, so the less likely it is to catch on as a real name. Evidently, all the suggestions made to date have been too cute or too precious: The decade is more than half over, and it still doesn’t have a name.

If it doesn’t have one by now, I doubt it ever will. Remember how quickly “Y2K” caught on in the late ’90s? When we need a word and a good candidate turns up, we seize on it. But there are also words we’ve needed for a long time that we still don’t have. Some others, besides yours, are: a word for a grown-up’s boyfriend or girlfriend, one that means “the family of one’s in-laws” and a gender-neutral singular pronoun meaning “he or she.” (In response to a recent column, readers wrote to suggest “(s)he” and “s/he” as solutions to this last problem, but I don’t think these are likely to win out because they’re unpronounceable.) Our need for a word isn’t enough to bring it into existence.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most people call the current year “two thousand six.” I think that’s short enough that we can do without abbreviating it further. But I expect you’re right about how we’ll pronounce “2010.” What remains to be seen is whether everybody accepts that the coming decade is the “teens.” Most of us will, I suppose. But I predict that a vocal minority -- no doubt the same people who insisted that the current millennium started in 2001, not 2000 -- will argue that “twenty-ten,” “twenty-eleven” and “twenty-twelve” aren’t “teens,” so the decade can’t be called that. Oh, yes it can. And that’s what I, for one, plan to call it.

Victoria Mulka, of Memphis, Mich., writes: “Is it necessary to double up on the ‘had’s? For instance: ‘She had had two helpings of mashed potatoes.’ I find this frequently in novels I read. To me, it sounds jumbled.”

Dear Victoria: That’s the past-perfect, or pluperfect, tense -- “pluperfect” being a word so frightening to people who don’t know a lot about grammar that you probably shouldn’t say it out loud without looking around you first. The pluperfect tense is actually very useful. Let’s say the novel you’re reading is generally in the past tense -- as in, “It was time for dessert.” If so, the pluperfect is the way the author can indicate a brief flashback: “It was time for dessert, but she wasn’t hungry anymore, because she had had two helpings of mashed potatoes.”

Double “had”s in particular are easy to stumble over. So if your sentence were an example of something you were thinking of writing instead of something you’ve read, I’d suggest that you change it to this: “She had eaten two helpings of mashed potatoes.”

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

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