Past Perfect is Dead, Say Researchers

Urbana, Illinois - February 6, 2018 - Following a five year study of reader tolerance for various levels of the past perfect in fiction, researchers at the University of Illinois are prepared to say that the past perfect is, effectively, dead. "Readers can only tolerate trace levels of the past perfect in fiction," says Professor Dayle Carnegie of the University's English Department. "The past perfect is essentially dead as a verb tense in prose fiction."

The unprecedented study, funded in part by multi-million dollar grants from the United States Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Humanities, was conducted over a five year period. "We found a strong Pearson correlation coefficient (Ρ = -1) indicating that readers experience extreme cognitive dissonance when exposed to anything more than almost-undetectable levels of the past perfect in prose fiction," Carnegie said.

Verb tense levels were measured using an instrument called the Datascope, developed by a research team at the University of Illinois Library. "The Datascope was actually designed to measure levels of data blackdamp in datamines," said Milita Daemmerling, a Datamining Specialist with the Library. "We're delighted to learn that researchers in the English Department have found such an innovative way to repurpose the tool."

Data blackdamp is an asphyxiant often found in poorly curated data, and can be lethal to researchers engaged in data mining. "Because blackdamp is both highly toxic and almost impossible for humans to detect, it was important to create a tool that would be highly sensitive to its presence in data corpora." The Datascope is calibrated to detect even the slightest levels of blackdamp. "The safety of our data miners is a top priority for us," says Daemmerling, who cautions that, "In our rush to exploit the almost limitless possibilities of datamining, researchers too often fail to take the necessary precautions when using datamines, and data providers too often neglect best practices when first curating the data. That negligence in turn can result in datamines rife with blackdamp. It's criminal, really, to allow researchers into poorly curated datamines." Dammerling adds that the problem is especially prevalent in datasets curated by private sector data vendors, often out to make a quick profit. "Until we can rely on our data curators to curate datamines completely free of the data impurities that lead to blackdamp, we will continue to use the Datascope as a precautionary tool here in the Library."

"The use of the Datascope by English Department researchers is just a fantastic example of the kind of robust, interdisciplinary collaboration going on here at the University of Illinois," said the University's Vice Provost for Research. "In terms of innovation, Urbana is poised to become the next Silicon Valley."

Carnegie explained that the research team in the English Department modified the Datascope so that, instead of measuring levels of blackdamp, it would measure levels of the past perfect verb tense.

"The conclusion of the project has been bittersweet," Carnegie said. "Looking back, I can say that it's an example of how much can go wrong when interdisciplinarity is not combined with deep, meaningful collaboration. Because of the changes we made to the Datascope, it was no longer capable of detecting blackdamp in the datamine, which, it turns out, had been improperly curated by the data curators at ExpoQuest, the vendor from which we purchased the dataset. Over the course of the five year project, the data impurities within the datamine began to oxidize and produce blackdamp. Two of our researchers and five of our test subjects died."

The Vice Provost concedes that the deaths were regrettable. "Let me be clear, though: the loss of life in no way diminishes the groundbreaking significance of the research. What it tells us is the tragic, human cost of failing to adequately fund higher education. As far as I'm concerned, Governor Rauner has blood on his hands. The research team in the English Department needed two Datascopes: one calibrated to detect verb tense, and one calibrated to detect blackdamp. Thanks to Governor Rauner's cuts to funding for higher education, however, the English Department could not afford two separate Datascopes. Their hands were tied, and the grants would not cover the cost of an extra Datascope."

Over the next five years, the research team plans to extend its study to include reader tolerance of the past perfect in prose non-fiction.

Asked whether they would ever study readers' ability to tolerate the past perfect in poetry, Carnegie said, "We have no plans to study reader tolerance for the past perfect in poetry, because previous studies have found that readers have no tolerance for poetry whatsoever."