July 27, 2007

Running time backwards

From the Palo Alto Daily News, 7/24/07, "Nephew of man killed by police to be tried as an adult" by Mark Abramson (p.3):

This was the first officer-involved shooting in San Mateo since Labor Day, when a homeless man wielding a knife was shot.  The last such shooting in the city since that incident was almost 24 years ago, Raffaelli said.

In the first sentence we have an ordinary use of temporal since, picking out the time span elapsed between an "anchor time" (last Labor Day), denoted by the object of since, and a later time (the time of the recent San Mateo shooting).

But in the second sentence the time span is between an anchor time (again, last Labor Day) and an EARLIER time (of the shooting 24 years ago).  Time seems to be running backwards; before, not since, is the appropriate P (preposition or subordinator) here.

Still, the writer didn't just pull a P out of a hat.  Since is wrong (well, non-standard), but it's close.

The writer seems to have generalized since from referring specifically to elapsed time (along "time's arrow") to referring to any span between two times.  For him, the object of since picks out one end of the span, in effect a point of view from which the span is measured, and that point can be at either end of the span.

[Added 7/31/07: Several correspondents suggest that the odd use here might be the result of careless revising or editing.  Indeed it might.  But then again, maybe not, and there's an interesting general question -- see below -- that arises from thinking about the example.]

Standard English has forward-looking since and backward-looking before, but no double-sided temporal P, one covering both directions.  In a roughly similar fashion, standard English has forward-looking tomorrow and backward-looking yesterday, but no double-sided temporal adverb, meaning 'one day from today'.  Such lexical items aren't unnatural -- I believe that languages have been reported with 'one day from today' adverbs (at the moment I'm away from sources I could check [7/31/07: Priyanka Chauhan has written from New Delhi to tell me about Hindi kal]) -- but we'd expect them to be relatively rare, since they're less informative than the more specific items.  Still, a double-sided temporal P would have its uses, allowing speakers to view things from either end of a time span, the way the PADN writer (who used the same anchor time in both sentences) wanted to do with since.  No doubt I'll soon hear of languages with double-sided Ps.  Or of other English speakers who use since this way (it's not in the OED, but then plenty of innovative non-standard usages aren't in the OED, and shouldn't be).

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 27, 2007 02:24 PM