SINCE BEFORE.

Arnold Zwicky in Language Log quotes a striking pair of sentences from a Palo Alto Daily News story:

This was the first officer-involved shooting in San Mateo since Labor Day, when a homeless man wielding a knife was shot. The last such shooting in the city since that incident was almost 24 years ago, Raffaelli said.

As Zwicky says, “In the first sentence we have an ordinary use of temporal since… But in the second sentence the time span is between an anchor time (again, last Labor Day) and an EARLIER time (of the shooting 24 years ago). Time seems to be running backwards; before, not since, is the appropriate P (preposition or subordinator) here.” He analyzes it as a deliberate usage (“The writer seems to have generalized since from referring specifically to elapsed time… to referring to any span between two times”), but it seems to me much more likely that it was an accidental result of botched copyediting and that all parties involved, if shown the sentence as printed, would say in annoyance “How did that slip through?” It just seems too far outside the norm to be anyone’s actual usage.
But I’ve been wrong about such things plenty of times, so I ask the assembled multitudes: does it seem likely to you that someone in the normal course of speaking or writing English could use “since then” to mean “before then”?

Comments

  1. Davey Bob says:

    No way.

  2. I’d never encountered that error with “since,” but I’ve seen it a few times with “from.” There, of course, there’s the difference that in some of its senses “from” does not imply a specific direction (“three miles from here”), so it’s not surprising that someone could try to use “from” temporally without implying futurity (“three days from now” to mean “three days ago”). Non-future “since” is harder to account for.

  3. My biggest problem analyzing that sentence is that I don’t see the word “since” in the first sentence at all. Where is it?

  4. George – “since Labor Day”.
    A man I work with says he’s heard it before, but very rarely.

  5. No, it doesn’t work for me.

  6. SnowLeopard says:

    No, but then I also use “since” in the sense of “because” (and “while” in the sense of “although”), which precludes such usage.

  7. shum mishtake shurly

  8. I think I’m with SnowLeopard on this one.

  9. Up to the precise moment in time (to the nanosecond) that it’s accepted as common usage, “since” meaning “before” is wrong. Sez I.

  10. michael farris says:

    since = before????
    NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    thank you, I feel better now.

  11. Only tangentially related but the AZ’s post made me think of most of the Germans I’ve had the pleasure to work with (in English – I don’t have a working grasp of the language, myself).
    I’ve noticed they’re prone to use since in places where I’d use for. The standard example being something like “I’ve been working here since two years”. Presumably it’s a calque from German, but it too does use since to refer to the past, though in a different, more logical manner (it’s clear that the since still operates forward, but from a fixed point in the past and ending now).
    Yesss, not really relevant, but …

  12. To answer your question, my opinion is: star!
    (Never acceptable. Haven’t heard it.)
    But I do notice regular errors when people are using time-references that are effectively iterative or nested. For example discussing previous events from a point of view in the past (pluperfect). Or the future perfect or ‘futur anerieur’.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    The German mistake is also made by many French speakers, as a translation of depuis which can refer to a past date (“Je travaille ici depuis le 1er janvier”) or to a continuing action that started in the past (“Je travaille ici depuis deux ans”). In English since in a temporal sense is only for a past date (“since Labor Day”) – to my knowledge I have never heard or read an example like the second use of since quoted by AZ.
    I think that the writer (who is quoting someone else’s spoken words, though not verbatim) may have started the sentence one way and then changed his mind about how to finish it, or he (or the editor) may have tried to collapse two sentences into one, but did not have time to rethink and reread the finished product carefully enough.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Something else that strikes me in the sentence is “the first officer-involved shooting”, meaning “the first shooting in which an officer was involved”. Does it seem odd to anyone else?

  15. Now that you mention it, yes, that is an odd expression.

  16. That use of since certainly is aberrant. It reminds me of the more accepted but more problematic beyond in sentences like this:
    1.   It is not attested beyond 500 CE.
    Without context, is it clear which beyond should mean: before or after 500 CE?
    And how about this, instead:
    2.   It is not attested beyond 500 BCE.
    And how about these, which supply some sort of context, but of doubtful utility:
    3.   It is not attested between 400 and 450 BCE, and is generally rare beyond 500 BCE.
    4.   It is not attested between 400 and 450 CE, and is generally rare beyond 500 CE.
    5.   It is not attested between 400 and 450 BCE, and is generally rare beyond 300 BCE.
    6.   It is not attested between 400 and 450 CE, and is generally rare beyond 300 CE.
    Beyond is naturally taken to mean after, but also to mean further from us than. These two meanings work in harmony in uses like beyond next Easter, but they grind against each other when the time mentioned is in our past. I would not use it in such cases; but it is so used. I saw it just now in Nesfield’s Modern English Grammar (1912):

    In the Tudor period, and somewhat beyond it, the subjunctive was commonly expressed without the help of an auxiliary. (p. 65)

    Um, beyond all that, it is interesting that native speakers of putonghua Chinese typically say in English three days later for three days from now (or in three days), and three days before (or earlier) for three days ago. This prompts examination of the assumptions behind our temporal use of in, from, and the like.
    Finally, the assumptions operating in this are related, and also worthy of examination:
    7.   We’ll shift the meeting forward by one week.
    Why should this mean that we’ll schedule the meeting one week earlier, rather than later? After all, in a way we assume that we “go forward” in time, don’t we? (Consider the weaselly Managementsprache moving forward, for in future.) And of course we do say this:
    8.   Last week’s meetings, and, looking further back, all of last month’s,…

  17. dearieme says:

    1) Prescriptivists can agree that the ‘since’ was wrong.
    2) ‘first officer-involved’ deserves praise, since at least he put the hyphen in. Many people wouldn’t have bothered, thus indulging in “here’s a pile of words and I’ll let you guess just what I might have meant to mean; do reread a few times” English.
    3) I too find “shifting forward” confusing. Prescriptivists might recommend “bringing forward” and “pushing back” as potentially less ambiguous.
    4) ‘Moving forward opposite the present situation’ used to grate with me, but I’ve not heard the whole mouthful since the late 70s.

  18. Prescriptivists can agree that the ‘since’ was wrong.
    Well, yes, but that’s not the question, which is: can descriptivists agree that the ‘since’ was wrong? In other words, is it an actual feature of some people’s English, however distressing to prescriptivists, or is it simply an artifact of the way the article was created? The only thing in this thread that’s made me think the former is a possibility is this remark of The Ridger’s: “A man I work with says he’s heard it before, but very rarely.” Ridger, could you confirm with him that he’s heard people use since in situations where it unambiguously means ‘before’? A sample sentence would be nice.

  19. This usage is incredibly difficult to search for using Google, but here are three potential cases that I found:
    (1) today i adjusted all of my valves… last time since i did it was about 5000 miles ago
    http://www.diyforums.net/tags/valve
    (2) i try to come on as much as i can last time i logged in since today was like 4 months ago
    boards.adultswim.com/adultswim/board/message?board.id=hq_adultswim&message.id=680585
    (3) My last break since now was July three years ago.
    und.cstv.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/060706aab.html
    Exx. (1) and (2) are from message boards — there is not much context to make sure they are cases of the phenomenon under discussion, and they could be performance errors anyway. But ex. (3) is from what looks like a fairly carefully edited page and it clearly uses “since” to mean “before”.
    So, is this usage “wrong” from a descriptive point of view? I would say it is unusual, since it is an exploitation of the normal use of the word within a frame of reference where the speaker is moving along the timeline backwards.

  20. Cum grano salis says:

    Since time immemorial, prescriptivists have been at odds with those of the descriptive school of thought.
    “last such” s/b previous ?
    from a a user of the lingua Anglais.

  21. michael farris says:

    “So, is this usage “wrong” from a descriptive point of view?”
    Prescriptivists tend to see right and wrong as discrete categories, descriptivists (at least this one) aren’t generally so sure of themselves and mostly see right and wrong (esp the latter) as shades of grey.
    As for ‘backwards’ since, at most it seems like extremely marginal usage that many (most) native speakers find confusing or logically (rather than purely grammatically) wrong, like “She fell up out of the tree” which is grammatically okay but has an unexpected and extremely unlikely directional.)
    Who knows, maybe after a few (or many) years this usage might become normal, but at the moment the consensus seems to be that it’s not.

  22. One more test a descriptive point of view can still apply is asking mabramson@dailynewsgroup.com whether that’s really what he meant to say. I’m surprised no one has done that yet. (Of course, people may be mistaken in their introspection, so a corpus is better.)

  23. Good suggestion, MMcM. I just sent that email, inviting him to review these comments and enlighten us.

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