Quantify References to Elapsed Time

By Mark Nichol

A writer’s book-jacket bio mentions that she’s been a reporter for fifteen years. An online product review refers to a device having been launched last fall. Your blog relates that you attended a conference the previous month. What’s wrong with each of these descriptions? They all assume the reader is trapped in temporal stasis.

By the time the book comes out, the bio’s reference to the writer’s tenure will be outdated. When someone checks it out from a library or picks it up at a used-book store five years later, it will be even more so. The solution? “Jane Doe has been a reporter since 1996.”

Anyone researching the product online who comes across the review may miss the small, obscure dateline and assume the device came on the market the previous fall, when it may in fact be years old. The solution? “The Wacky Widget, launched in fall 2010, still tops the market in quality.”

Visitors reading your blog’s archives will wonder why you misidentified the time of year when a well-known conference takes place. The solution? “I had an interesting experience at the July 2011 OMG conference.”

None of these errors is serious, but they are all errors, and they are all easily avoided.

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7 Responses to “Quantify References to Elapsed Time”

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    On a similar note, years ago newspapers quit using “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” in stories, opting instead for name the days of the week.

  • David Petrie

    Does the example “The Wacky Widget, launched in fall 2010, still tops the market in quality” still have a temporal problem? What if a product the reviewer likes better was released between the time the review was written and read? Would it be more accurate to say “The Wacky Widget, launched in fall 2010, still (as of spring 2013) tops the market in quality”?

  • Lucas

    I don’t know how many times I came across such a vagueness, struggling to understand the exact period by the context.
    Lucas

  • Gary Lum

    Thanks, great post. It’s so easy to write the day of the month, month of the year and the year. For the technically minded there’s even a standard, viz., ISO 8601 which removes the problem of dd/mm/yyyy vs mm/dd/yyyy. When I meet with colleagues from the northern hemisphere they keep on referring to seasons and forget for me in Australia our autumn is their spring.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Lum, that is a significant problem: “When I meet with colleagues from the northern hemisphere they keep on referring to seasons and [they] forget [that] for me in Australia our autumn is their spring.” That is important for the people who live in Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa, and southern South America.

    I have wondered what settlers in an agricultural society did when they arrived in those places after long ocean voyages. If they arrived during the local spring of summer, then they had to dig in and start plowing the soil and planting crops immediately. On the other hand, if they arrived in the local autumn, then they had to wait for many months before they could plant, and then for many more months before the time of the first harvest. Then what happened if that first harvest got wiped out by locusts, hailstorms, or plant disease?

    What did they subsist on for all of those many months, or ever for more than a whole year? In parts of North America, such as Massachusetts, the first settlers arrived in the autumn, and then during the first rugged winter, about half of the adults died on malnutrition and disease. In eastern Canada, it was probably worse, depending on the time of the year of their arrival.

    In Massachusetts, the settlers had the advantage that there were friendly American Indians living there already. Some of them even spoke English because fishermen from England had landed there before and made contact. An Indian named Squanto had even been kidnapped and taken all the way to England, where he learned to speak English quite well. Then after several years, he was returned to Massachusetts and set free.

    I am sure that in Australia and New Zealand, NONE of the Aborigines and Maoris spoke English when the first settlers arrived there, such as in 1788. They just had not had contact with the British people.

    Dale

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is another way of looking at the definition of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. For the Northern Hemisphere, about 40 percent of it is land and 60 percent is water.
    On the other hand, the Southern Hemisphere is about 20 percent land and 80 percent water, plus a lot of the land is in uninhabited Antarctica.
    [Do a double check: the above numbers yield that about 30 percent of the whole world is land, and about 70 percent is water. That is close, because the whole world is about 67 percent covered by water.]

    Hence, the bulk of the land of the world is in the Northern Hemisphere. Also since so much of the Southern Hemisphere is covered by icecap and the deserts of Australia (such as the Simpson Desert and the Great Sandy Desert) and southern Africa (the Kalahari, etc.), the vast majority of the world’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, and most of that in Europe, Asia, and North America.

    So, we can be justified in saying that the default meanings of spring, summer, autumn, and winter are those in Europe, Asia, and North America. Yes, the default meanings, which are those that are assumed unless stated otherwise.

    Also, the very meanings of the words spring, summer, autumn, and winter were established in ancient times in places like Ancient Greece, Ancient Turkey, the Ancient Roman Republic, the early German kingdoms, the Indus River Valley of western India, Mainland China, and Japan. The languages of ancient India (e.g. Sanskrit), Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe are all related to each other, too (the Indo-European languages), but I am writing about the concepts, not the words.

    Recall also that back then few people lived in North Asia, Scandinavia, and North America, so I am not really counting them. Even places like Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Moscow were mere villages, and St. Petersburg did not even exist until it was founded by Peter the Great. Trondheim, Norway, was not established until the year 997 A.D.
    I was looking for places that were founded near the end of the first milennium. Did people even found times then, or were they just waiting for the end of the world to happen in 1000 A.D.?

    The great supernova of 1054 was observed by the Chinese and the American Indians, but little was noted about it by the Europeans. Then William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, which indicates to me that the Normans believed that THE END was NOT near.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oops, I typed “times” when I mean “towns”.
    Why found a town when you think that the End of the World is Near? Instead, people would spend their time repenting of their sins…

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