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About time: A grammarian on the slipperiness of time

You’ve arrived back from the UK, jet-lagged but laden with photocopies of parish records tracing your lineage back to the 1750s. The genealogical bug bit a few years ago, and now you’re all set to construct your family tree. You especially want to impress Martin, that smug know-it-all, so when you see him in the tearoom you excitedly announce, “I’ve traced my family tree back to Jebediah Swanson, born in Somerset on the 4th of September 1752. He was my great, great…”

“That’s impossible,” Martin snaps and walks off. You stand there mortified at not getting out all seven greats and wondering what Martin means.

He means there was no 4th of September 1752. The English Parliament finally made the 11-day adjustment (Wednesday 2 September was followed by Thursday 14 September) needed to compensate for the fact the Julian calendar had been getting out of synch with the solar year for centuries. Many European countries had long before adopted the Gregorian calendar, but the English viewed this time-adjusting business as Catholic skulduggery.

Historians need to be aware of these dates, otherwise they might wonder why someone set off across the Channel one day and arrived the week before.

Slipperiness of dates isn’t confined to history. For example, the attacks on the Twin Towers happened on 12 September 2001 – New Zealand time. If someone mentions 9/11, you can tell them it was in fact 12/9, thanks very much, and then start ranting about American cultural imperialism if they disagree. Of course, the events happened in the US, but what about the moon landing? Apollo 11 nestled on lunar soil on my mother’s birthday, 21 July 1969, not on 20 July, as Wikipedia would have you believe.

When it comes to writing about time, there are some common pitfalls. For example, if you say, “The project ran from 2003 to 2009”, how many years do you actually mean? Are you counting 2003 and 2009, in which case it is seven, or just the in-between years, in which case it could be six years – or even five.

Notice I said “from 2003 to 2009”. “From… to” is one of two common time-related pairs of conjoined twins with very specific rules:

Wrong: from 2003-2009

Correct: from 2003 to 2009

Wrong: between 1991-1996

Correct: between 1991 and 1996

More odd things happen when you squeeze the gap down to one year. If you refer to 2010-2011, or “from 2010 to 2011”, how many years are you talking about now? One? Two? In a real sense, the answer is no time at all. Think about it: how much time is there between 2010 and 2011? Time for that stolen kiss on the stroke of midnight? That’s why using a slash (oblique, or solidus) is very handy: 2010/2011, or 2010/11. This is particularly useful for financial years, but it’s excellent for indicating any period (such as summer) that spans from sometime in one year to sometime in the next.

And that’s “sometime”, by the way, not “some time”. There is a difference. It may take some time for your job application to go through (meaning quite a while), but you can expect to receive the result sometime in August (meaning at some stage).

In New Zealand, we follow UK practice and have the day first, as in 14 July 2017, whereas the Americans have the month first, which is both counterintuitive and requires an extra comma: July 14, 2017. Day, month, year is inarguably more logical than month, day, year, but as with most things, US style is starting to predominate – although I haven’t noticed any tendency to say “one hundred twenty-three” rather than “one hundred and twenty-three”.

Final tip: to avoid giving your version of Martin ammunition, remember it’s genealogy, not geneology. Getting that wrong is like cornering a paediatrician at a party and holding forth about your bunions. 

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.