Wednesday, December 19, 2007

This Last Next Point

With less than two weeks before I stop referring to January 2007 and the spring of 2007 and the summer of 2007 and the fall of 2007 as this January and spring and summer and fall and start talking about last January and spring and summer and fall, I thought I'd go over my chronological taxonomy once more. Here's an example from one of my favorite publications that I saved for blogging but never managed to get around to:
Last summer, vandals broke into St. Luke's Church in Hodnet, England, where some legends place the Grail, damaging an organ pipe and a stone wall.
I have no idea what this means. Oh, hell, I guess I do -- "last summer" probably doesn't mean the summer of last year, but, for heaven's sake, this summer ended less than two months before this was printed, and yet the writer is evoking Grandpa sitting in his rocking chair waxing poetic: "Ah, yes, the summer of ought-seven . . ."

My system, in case I haven't already bored you with this, is basically to use this as long as we're still in the same larger period of time as the smaller period of time that's being referred to. New Year's Day isn't last January until Dec. 31 is over. Sunday isn't last Sunday until there's a new Sunday. It's not always so simple, but basically the point is to avoid ambiguity. Because last and next are used to mean both "the last/next one to occur" and "the one in last/next [larger period of time]," it's a good idea to avoid the print equivalent of the "not this Saturday, but next Saturday" conversation that we've all had. And usually, to me, this works well. It's pretty obvious what "this spring" means if you're reading it in October. Now, "this January" could be confusing on Dec. 19, so "this past January" and "this coming January" are fine (though "next month" would do nicely in the latter case).

An extra added bonus bit of tid from the same article:
Today, a slew of groups is betting that current technology will be able to find her plane.
A slew is betting. Those slews, they are a gambling type. The groups are doing the betting. A slew of groups are betting. Yes, slew is singular, but that doesn't matter, unless you'd also say, well, "a lot of people is confused," because lot is singular. (You've definitely heard this one before, but it bears repeating.)


Frolic said...

A sentence similar to your slew example has been bugging for a few days. I posted about it elsewhere, but I'm still not sure of the answer.

Would it be, "A portion of the profits was/were given to charity?" I don't know why I can't just convince myself that portion should be treated in this case as a regular, singular collective noun.

Bill said...

A portion was, but a lot or a bunch or a whole mess were.

Stephen Phillips said...

So, which is correct?

"I'm one of the few students who understand the problem."

"I'm one of the few students who understands the problem."

Do we say that "one" understands the problem, or do the "few students" understand the problem?

Bill said...

You'd be one of the few who understand. If you said "understands," you'd be talking only about yourself, and so why would those other few be in the sentence? You'd be talking about "those few students" a propos of nothing.

Unknown said...

I am trying to think of examples where "this," "last" and "next" add something meaningful. I think you may have the consensus view on your side, in terms of logic, but aren't you really adding a layer of headache over your editing?

If it's Wednesday, and some event is happening Sunday, can't you just say "Vandals will break into St. Luke's Church on Sunday"? If it's happening on the following Friday, can't you say "Vandals will break into St. Luke's Church on Dec. 28"?

And if it's October and the event happened in the spring, isn't it simpler to say "In the spring," or "In spring 2007, vandals broke into St. Luke's Church"?

I don't pretend to have a system, but thises, lasts and nexts give me migraines. Don't they depend on a context that, when everything goes up on the Web before it goes in the paper and stays there seemingly forever, doesn't really exist anymore?

Bill said...

But of course -- if just "Sunday" makes sense, say "Sunday." But don't say "next Sunday" when it's, say, Friday, and don't say "last Sunday" when it's, say, Tuesday.

Stephen Phillips said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Phillips said...

What if you're editing a weekly paper that's distributed all over town? Say you're going to print tonight, and you're writing about something that happened yesterday. But your colleague is writing about something that's going to happen on Friday.

Did the event happen Tuesday or last Tuesday? Or did it happen on Dec. 18?

And will the upcoming event happen Friday, this Friday or Dec. 21?

A reader could pick up the paper next Wednesday and see that something happened Tuesday, and something else will happen Friday. Is this a real problem, or are we to assume that our readers know to check the issue date?

Eileen said...

I edit a weekly paper that's distributed in three counties. For our Web reports, we use days of the week, but for print, I put in the dates.

As for the "this," "last" and "next" argument, I have one writer (who covers banking/finance) who, for example, always refers to "last Sept. 30" when writing about deposits and other numbers reported to the FDIC. I am forever taking that "last" out. And, as you may guess, if something's going to happen in March, the writer will say "next March." I take that "next" out, too.

Unknown said...

I wonder how much regional variation there is with "this," "next," and "last." When I moved from Arizona to Utah as a child, I suddenly found myself confused whenever someone said something was happening "next Friday." Everyone else seemed to use it to mean "Friday next week," while I took it to mean "the very next upcoming Friday (i.e., Friday this week)."

Karla Maquiling said...

I always feel unsure about using "this" and "coming" in one sentence, because I always deem "this" as something that's coming. Isn't the phrase "this coming" redundant?

Aranfell said...

Well, I'm confused. Isn't "this" a construction to be used only during the specified unit or else when there is universal consent on when the larger unit of time starts and stops? E.g., for those on the day shift, "this morning" would always mean the morning of the same daylight hours, but weekends and seasons seem less consistent.

Today (Dec. 24th, 2007), "this winter" means the current season that ends in March 2008. But a week ago, would "this winter" have meant winter of 2006/2007? Surely that would commonly be called "last winter", at least by those clearing snow.

Weekends seem to have a similar confusion -- technically the new week starts on Sunday, but in common usage, Saturday and Sunday are often treated as a unit, tied to either the prior or following set of weekdays. So isn't it confusing to say "this Sunday" on Wednesday? Don't "last Sunday" and "next Sunday" clearly refer to the Sunday before and the Sunday after, rather than the Sunday of the week before or the Sunday of the week after?


Bill said...

The overriding principle would be "If it's confusing, don't do it." Because winter spans two calendar years, "this winter" makes sense only while this winter is still happening, or perhaps in the the adjacent spring (that's where "this past" comes in handy). When speaking of a Sunday on a Wednesday, often the context will make things clear. "The event is scheduled for Sunday" obviously means the Sunday that arrives next. "The event happened Sunday obviously means the Sunday that occurred most recently.

But sometimes "this past" and "this coming" may be necessary. "The event was scheduled for Sunday, but it was canceled" is ambiguous.

Unknown said...

Would it be, "A portion of the profits was/were given to charity?" I don't know why I can't just convince myself that portion should be treated in this case as a regular, singular collective noun.

The short answer is that you can give either. There are three factors affecting verb/noun agreement in English:
1) Grammatical agreement
2) Notional agreement
3) Proximal agreement

In the best of worlds all three are the same, but problems arise when they are not. In the case of collective nouns the grammatical agreement differs from the notional agreement. In the particular case you mention the proximal agreement suggests plural, which is why you feel uncomfortable with the singular.