Wednesday, August 23, 2006

This 'Last'

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- Almost 20 percent of the female cadets at The Citadel last spring reported being sexually assaulted since enrolling at the state military college, according to results of a survey released by the school Wednesday.

Last spring. It's easy to read past that, but what on earth does it mean? It's now summer. Immediately before summer began, it was spring. The last spring to have occurred was the spring of 2006, but why, why, why would somebody write it that way? If it's Wednesday, do you refer to the previous day as "last Tuesday"?

So maybe the writer meant "spring of last year," as in the spring of 2005? That somehow seems less likely, and indeed the Reuters story on the survey says it was conducted "in the spring."

I would also accept "this spring" in a reference to the spring of the current year. And maybe even "last fall" if it's January or February of 2006 and you want to make it absolutely clear that you're referring to autumn of 2005 and not autumn of 2006. But a midweek yesterday is not last Tuesday, and a spring isn't "last" until the year is over.


Toby Eckert said...

Thanks for addressing that little annoyance. This other construction I've seen falls into the same category: "this past spring."

Bill said...

"This past" isn't ambiguous, but it bothers me, too. It's fine in conversation but seems unfit for print -- it's almost like writing out the common conversational phrase "not THIS Saturday, but NEXT Saturday."

Meredith said...

I always get caught on "next" more than last.

Today is Thursday. If i say "next weekend," I don't mean this coming weekend, I mean the one after that, but people often misunderstand me. Sigh.

Bill said...

Yeah, that's the conversational habit I'm referring to in the 11:42 a.m. comment. If the weekend of the current week hasn't arrived yet, there's just no way "next" can mean "the one after next." But then the next weekend is "this weekend," so really nothing is "next weekend"!

Third Reading said...

This topic has always really bothered me. The way I see it, the verb tense will tell you most of what you need to know.

"I WENT to Florida in the spring." Or "I AM GOING to Florida in the spring."

If it isn't the specified time immediately before or immediately after, use the date. "I went to Florida in the spring of 2005."

I've tried to start the trend of carrying that rule over into conversation. It's amazing how many words people waste on trying to explain which weekend they are talking about.

Bill said...

The tense usually does take care of things, though there are exceptions. If it's Monday and you're writing about an event that had been scheduled for the weekend (or, say, Thursday) but was postponed, it gets tricky.

Vince Tuss said...

You asked: If it's Wednesday, do you refer to the previous day as "last Tuesday"?

I say: As God as my witness, at my freaking newspaper they do. And I try to change everyone I can.

Deb Schiff said...

And, what's a "school Wednesday?" Would that be Wednesday Addams? Shouldn't it have been "on Wednesday?"

Bill, are you behind The Washington Post's Style Invitational?

Thanks for always posting entertaining and educational content on your blog. I greatly appreciate it.


Bill said...

I don't see any need to say "school on Wednesday" rather than "school Wednesday" in that sentence. But I would use the "on" to avoid a capitalization juxtaposition such as "Citadel Wednesday."

I have nothing to do with the Style Invitational, but, as it happens, the person who runs it is a usage authority in her own right.

Don Martin said...

There's an easy rule for that one: Never more than one time reference in a sentence. Cut it at first read.