October 23, 2006

The structure of Daylight Saving Time

This is a public service announcement from the Past and Future Tense Desk at Language Log Plaza: Daylight Saving Time (DST) in the U.S. ends (and Standard Time begins) at 2:00am this Sunday, October 29. (For readers in the EU: DST ends at 1:00am GMT.) At that time, it'll all of a sudden be one hour earlier again. You'll have an extra hour of sleep. It'll be great. Unless, of course, you live in one of those parts of the world that doesn't observe DST in the first place, in which case you don't get any extra sleep -- but you also won't lose an hour of sleep again in the Spring, so quit your whining.

Note! Before you write to tell us you've found a typo: that's the language-related bit that I'll get to in a moment. But first, back to the rest of the public service message. (Unless noted otherwise, the source of the basic information here is this site -- one of the "exhibits" on the very interesting WebExhibits site -- and the quotations are from this page of the exhibit, most of it drawn from this book.)

For the past 20 years, Daylight Saving Time (DST) in the United States has begun at 2:00am on the first Sunday of April and has ended at 2:00am on the last Sunday of October (save for states with overriding legislation, allowing DST not to be observed). For 20 years before that, U.S. DST began on the last Sunday of April. DST has been observed in the U.S. in some form since 1918, but observance is more variable before 1966, both Federally and at the state level. There was a time when localities could choose to start and end DST at different times. Some examples:

Widespread confusion was created during the 1950s and 1960s when each U.S. locality could start and end Daylight Saving Time as it desired. One year, 23 different pairs of DST start and end dates were used in Iowa alone. For exactly five weeks each year, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were not on the same time as Washington D.C., Cleveland, or Baltimore -- but Chicago was. And, on one Ohio to West Virginia bus route, passengers had to change their watches seven times in 35 miles! The situation led to millions of dollars in costs to several industries, especially those involving transportation and communications. Extra railroad timetables alone cost the today’s equivalent of over $12 million per year.

Worldwide observance of DST has never been standardized. In the European Union, for example, DST begins at 1:00am Greenwich Mean Time on the last Sunday of March and ends at 1:00am GMT on the last Sunday of October. (Although all EU clocks change at the same moment in time, most of the EU is east of GMT. Most EU folks thus change their clocks at 2:00am, and some -- for example, in, Greece -- change their clocks at 3:00am.)

By a new Federal law passed last year (the Energy Policy Act of 2005), the bounds of U.S. DST will change again in 2007. Next year, DST will begin on the second Sunday of March and end on the first Sunday of November. Whether this change will hold in subsequent years will apparently depend on a report of the impact of the change from the Department of Energy. Based on the following, I'm thinking it'll stick:

Following the 1973 oil embargo, the U.S. Congress extended Daylight Saving Time to 8 months, rather than the normal six months. During that time, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that observing Daylight Saving Time in March and April saved the equivalent in energy of 10,000 barrels of oil each day -- a total of 600,000 barrels in each of those two years.

Likewise, in 1986, Daylight Saving Time moved from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April. No change was made to the ending date of the last Sunday in October. Adding the entire month of April to Daylight Saving Time is estimated to save the U.S. about 300,000 barrels of oil each year.

In any event, there has long been another reason folks have wanted to change at least the end date of DST:

Daylight Saving Time in the U.S. always ends a few days before Halloween (October 31). A bill to extend DST to Halloween is proposed in almost every session of Congress, with the purpose of providing trick-or-treaters more light and therefore more safety from traffic accidents. Children’s pedestrian deaths are four times higher on Halloween than on any other night of the year. Also, for decades, candy manufacturers have lobbied for a Daylight Saving Time extension to Halloween, as many of the young trick-or-treaters gathering candy are not allowed out after dark, and thus an added hour of light could mean a big holiday treat for the candy industry.

OK, now back to the language-related thing. On the second page of the DST exhibit, there's a section called Spelling and grammar, which somewhat pedantically notes:

The official spelling is Daylight Saving Time, not Daylight SavingS Time.

Saving is used here as a verbal adjective (a participle). It modifies time and tells us more about its nature; namely, that it is characterized by the activity of saving daylight. It is a saving daylight kind of time. Similar examples would be dog walking time or book reading time. Since saving is a verb describing a single type of activity, the form is singular.

Nevertheless, many people feel the word savings (with an 's') flows more mellifluously off the tongue. Daylight Savings Time is also in common usage, and can be found in dictionaries.

Adding to the confusion is that the phrase Daylight Saving Time is inaccurate, since no daylight is actually saved. Daylight Shifting Time would be better, but it is not as politically desirable.

The "flows more mellifluously off the tongue" part makes it sound like this is a phonetic or phonological matter -- more precisely, that it is some sort of articulatory issue (as opposed to an acoustic one, or it might have said something like "flows more mellifluously into the ear"). But I think this is one of those cases where the appeal to something-about-the-tongue (or -the-ear) is a substitute for the absence of an educated linguistic guess: we know how we say things, but we often have no idea why we say them that way. Linguists are people who do have ideas about why we say things the way we do. The ideas may be wrong, but they're not baseless.

I have an idea about the 's' in Daylight Savings Time -- which, incidentally, is the way I've always said it, apparently incorrectly but certainly not apologetically. But first, I have to address the idea quoted above, that Saving is a "verbal adjective" and that Daylight Saving Time is thus like dog walking time or book reading time -- though perhaps a better example to compare is picture taking time, which has the same number of syllables as Daylight Saving Time.

Here's why this idea can't be right. Examples like picture taking time (which, FWIW, I would probably write picture-taking time) are pronounced with the main stress on the stressed syllable of the first word: PICture-taking time. This is because the structure of these examples is as follows (see the youth and popular culture desk report on the relation between stress and structure in examples like these here):

The example we're interested in is different, because the main stress is on the second word, not the first: it's Daylight SAVing Time, not DAYlight-Saving Time. Something about Daylight SAVing Time must differ from PICture-taking time. (Try saying picture TAKing time -- not very mellifluous.)

Is it a difference in structure? I don't think so. Everything about Daylight SAVing Time indicates to me that it patterns with examples like foreign LANguage test, which have this structure:

The critical difference is that the first word in this structure (foreign) is an adjective (with the label A), not a noun (with the label N) in the PICture-taking time example above. I think Daylight likewise functions as an adjective here -- one derived from a noun, but an adjective nonetheless -- which means that Saving must be the noun that this adjective is modifying:

This brings us back to the question about the 's' that "many people" seem to think is more mellifluous. The issue, I think, is this: the word saving, like other -ing participles, is not commonly used as a noun, but the word savings is. This is especially true in the context of money, and there's a well-known metaphorical link between money and time (see this page for some discussion; search for "time is money"). So, at least for "many people", the most accessible relevant noun is savings, not saving. The reasoning that Saving here is a "verbal adjective" is just hooey.

Of course, this entire story hinges on the fact that the stress pattern is Daylight SAVing Time, not DAYlight-Saving Time: this stress pattern leads to the structural analysis that leads to the relevant word-choice. But why is the stress pattern like that in the first place? I don't have a well-thought-out answer to that one yet, but perhaps it will be fodder for a future post.

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 23, 2006 03:30 PM