It Ends When…

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A reader is puzzled by a line in a movie:

While watching The Bourne Ultimatum, I observed a CIA officer saying “It ends when we’ve won “. [I’m] a bit confused with this construction as it does not indicate future though the context of sentence [indicates that] the officer is talking about some time in future.

If the statement stood alone, one would expect the verb in one of the clauses to be in future tense: “The killing will end when we have won.” However, the statement “It ends when we’ve won” refers to a previous sentence that contains or implies the antecedent of the pronoun it. The example from the movie is the second half of this exchange:

Pamela Landy: Noah, she’s one of us. You start down this path, where does it end?

Noah Vosen: It ends when we’ve won.

“It ends when” + present perfect is a common idiom in such contexts as these:

Each week we watch/review 2 films. When will it all end? It ends when we’ve seen all the movies.

Affordability doesn’t end at the bottom of our pockets. It ends when we’ve counted all the costs. 

The weekend course starts at 2 pm on Friday and 9 am on Saturday and Sunday. It ends when we’ve covered the material.

“It ends when” can also be followed by present tense:

All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.

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4 thoughts on “It Ends When…”

  1. This line from a movie illustrates a principle I’m now including in my writing. The essence of it is that perfect clarity isn’t always best, that a sentence that requires readers to engage in a bit of contextualization and interpretation can be better.

    Why? Having to interpret what a writer has written is like having to work for a living. The added labor helps you better understand what’s said and appreciate it.

    Here, “The killing will end when we have won,” is grammatically obvious and thus perhaps too easy to understand. “It ends when we’ve won,” requires just the right amount added effort.

    It also illustrates that terseness is one technique to add just the right amount of ambiguity. A lot of my editing now involves reducing the word count. “I don’t need to say that,” I tell myself. “They know that from three sentences back. Repeating just wastes their time and looks like I think they’re stupid.”

    Engaged readers are happy readers.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride.

  2. ApK,
    I love my popular culture. The Princess Bride is one of my absolute favorites. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  3. Maeve, when I revised my organization’s styleguide, I prefaced it with this quote from Princess Bride. Classic!

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