Sunday, February 19, 2006

Heed no nightly noise

Let's put a bit of language mythology to rest once and for all:

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans this past fall, 31 students from Tulane and Loyola universities ended up in Columbia to finish their semester at MU.

What the writer meant, and what the writer should have said, and what would have saved a line,* is "last fall" (what the writer really should have said was "last summer," since that's when August comes, but that's for another chat). Not "this past fall." That's what "last fall" does in half the space. Listen and attend.

It's perfectly all right -- indeed, it's rather common -- for words to have more than one meaning. It's not surprising that "punk" means both Johnny Rotten and something you light your fireworks with. What is surprising is that native speakers of English, meaning people who grew up knowing exactly what "Last night upon the stair/I met a man who wasn't there" means, should all of a sudden think "last" isn't one of those words.

Your just-a-few-clicks-away monster etymological resource, the OED, makes the point in vast detail. "Last," meaning "following all others, coming at the end" or "belonging to the end or final stage," can be dated to around 1200. Meaning "next before a point of time expressed or implied in the sentence" or "of the period, season, etc., occurring next before the time of writing or speaking, as last Wednesday," it dates to the mid-14th century. That meaning was several hundred years old, in other words, when Shakespeare wrote "as they did last time" and "in this last tempest." The question isn't whether it's OK to use "last" when you mean "most recent in a recurring series." The question is why anyone ever contended that it isn't.

In the small group of cases for which there's a risk of ambiguity, of course, it's always better to be clear. "I saw the Stones' last concert" could mean you saw Mick and Keith and the lads on Saturday in Rio. But given that the Stones were playing Rio when dinosaurs roamed the earth, you might want to avoid implying that time's winged chariot has hurried too near:

I saw the Stones' most recent concert.

I saw the Stones last night in Rio.

Both are fine. "I saw the Stones this past night" would be silly -- almost as silly as believing that "last summer" means anything other than, well, "last summer." Addiction to false rules isn't a sign of good writing. It's more often a sign of not knowing the difference between rules and meaning.

* All together now: Inch less foam! Inch more beer!


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