Making Sense of “Since”
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.