Making Sense of “Since”

By Maeve Maddox

Sometimes a word that is clear in one context, may create ambiguity in another.

Consider the following excerpt from a professional newspaper review of Hotel for Dogs.

The story follows 16-year-old Andi (Emma Roberts) and her 11-year-old brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) who, since the death of their parents, have lived in five foster homes over two years. Each move is challenging as they have to find ways to smuggle their charming Jack Russell terrier Friday, a member of their family since happier times, into each new household.

If you haven’t seen the film, can you tell from this paragraph if the children had the dog before their parents died? Don’t study it. Just base your impression on one quick reading.

The first time I read it, I thought it meant that they’d had the dog before the parents died, but as I went on with the review, I began to wonder if the children had acquired the dog after being sent into foster care.

In both phrases, the word since is a preposition. The OED gives two meanings for since as a preposition:

1. Ever or continuously from (a specified time, etc.) till now.

2. During the period between (a specified time) and now; at some time subsequent to or after. –OED

In the phrase since the death of their parents, the since marks a specific starting point.

In the phrase since happier times, the time period is ambiguous. This since could, like the first since, mark a starting point subsequent to the happy times enjoyed with their parents, or it could indicate an earlier starting point, during the happy times.

I haven’t seen the film, so to figure out the writer’s intended meaning, I googled (Oh, dear. I made a Google search of) “They had a dog named Friday” and found this refreshingly unambiguous statement in a review written by a high school senior:

When their parents were still alive they had a dog named Friday and after their parents passed away they kept the dog… –Janeane White

Not every reader would have had difficulty with this paragraph, but at least one did. And if one reader stumbles, it’s likely that others will.

To avoid confusion, it’s probably a good idea for a writer to avoid using the same word twice in the same paragraph, especially words that have more than one meaning, however slight the difference.

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7 Responses to “Making Sense of “Since””

  • Charlie

    Not using the same word twice in a paragraph is something I may have learned in a high school journalism class or from some of my research reading. There are many good words available so why get stuck with just a few?

    To me, since is the starting point of something existing. “Since when did you start thinking you were Queen?”

  • Mel

    I don’t get it. Maybe that’s because English is not my first language (nor my second). My understanding is, as you’ve put it, that “they’d had the dog before the parents died”. For me, “Since happier times” could only mean “when their parents were alive”, same as what Janeane White wrote. I thought that was pretty much established in the first sentence. Would you like to elucidate? I’m a fan of English and DWT, and I would very much like to master the language as much as I can in this lifetime. So if I don’t get the ambiguity, something’s wrong. 🙁

    But I am aware (and I understand) that using the same word in a paragraph is considered poor style, and the use of another word here would have sounded better. Thanks and more power!

  • Grace S.

    I think the confusion could be avoided (even if the reviewer wanted to use “since” twice in the paragraph) by the addition of a few words. In this case, it should read “. . . Friday, who had been a member of their family since happier times . . .”, which means something different from “. . . Friday, who had become a member of their family since happier times . . .” It’s probably still better to reword one of the sentences altogether, however.

  • Maeve

    Perhaps the simplest fix would be to change the second “since” to “in.”

  • Cassie Tuttle

    The ambiguity of the second “since” hadn’t occurred to me until you posed the question. And now that I’ve given it some thought, here’s the problem I see:

    The first “since” (since the death of their parents) is clear, and establishes a time frame, i.e., the period after their parents died, which occurred on a specific date. But the second “since” (since happier times) is not defined; there is no point of reference for the second “since” in terms of date, year, or defining event.

  • Mike

    No, there shouldn’t be any confusion here. “Since happier times” could only mean BEFORE the death of Andie and Bruce’s parents. That is clearly implied by the first sentence. Therefore, they’d had the dog before the parents died.

    The post should have dealt with the use of a better word here instead of pointing out a possible point of ambiguity when there really is none. The use of the word ‘since’ in the second instance is not ambiguous at all. It becomes confusing only when someone begins to think it’s confusing and starts making noise. DailyWritingTips had better posts than this.

  • Eustis

    “In the phrase since happier times, the time period is ambiguous”.

    Ambiguous? Yea right! I’m certain that after their parents died, their happiest memories would have been being cast into the foster care system.

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