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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

at this hour I'm blogging

Linguist Geoff Pullum notices that the comment preceding the time stamp on his blog is ungrammatical:
Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 16, 2007 10:59 AM
Grammatical English calls for that line to be worded, in full as:
Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum on December 16, 2007 at 10:59 AM
Pullum lists proper usage of English prepositions in time phrases:
at for seconds (at that very second)
at for minutes (at 15 minutes past the hour)
at for hours (at eight in the morning)
on for days (on December 16)
in for weeks (in the third week of December)
in for months (in December)
in for years (in 2007)
I would add "during the year." For me, "during 2006" would be used, rather than "in 2006", when a speaker/writer focuses on a more durative (or iterative) aspect of event(s) that took place, rather than on the event scene as a whole. (Greek scholars should be perking up now, as we're dealing with what is called "tense" in traditional Greek grammars.)

Pullum concludes by asking why the prepositions pattern this way:
Why is it at for short periods of time recorded on a clock face, on for medium ones punctuated by the cycle of sunrise and sunset, and in for longer ones recorded in the calendar? One day I might set that as an essay question in a course on grammar and meaning. I have no idea what the right thing to say about it would be, though.
English prepositions do not simply indicate location in time or space, but also a kind of duration or amount of space indicated. English "at" is the most punctiliar of the prepositions used in time phrases. Notice how we say
at exactly that point
but not
in exactly the point
on exactly that point
Now, what does this have to do with translation, and, in particular, Bible translation, which is the focus of this blog? It has just as much to do with translation to English as anything else we do with the English language. When we use English we need to follow English patterns (syntactic and lexical rules) which are used by enough people that they "sound right" to those people. (Among English speakers there are different groups, dialects, who use different rules.)

As I have evaluated English Bible versions over the years, my editor's ears often sense that a wrong preposition in used in some time phrases. This is not surprising since those who translate more formally often try to match up a form in a biblical language with an English form. But sometimes in that matching process, they pay more attention to the rules of the biblical languages than they do to English, and the English turns out ungrammatical.

I have previously blogged about how "in that day" sounds ungrammatical to me, as in:
in that day (Is. 12:1; KJV, RSV, ESV, NRSV, NIV, TNIV, NJPS, NLT)
Now, as some respondents have pointed out when I have blogged about this in (!) the past, "day" in the biblical language texts often is used for a span of time longer than a day in English. So when "day" is used for a longer period of time, it is not necessarily ungrammatical to use "in" with "day" but it is more natural to use the noun "time" to refer to such a period, and then use "at" with "time."

Other Bible versions, in particular those which are more idiomatic, use grammatically expected prepositions in the time phrase for Is. 12:1:
on that day (NASB, REB, HCSB)
at that time (NET, CEV, GW, NCV)
Notice that the more idiomatic translations use "at that time" for a time period longer than a 24 hour day. The NASB and HCSB stand out as nice counter-examples to the usage of "in" with "day" in the more formally equivalent translations. All Bible versions, including FE ones, do use "on" with "day" when their translators consider that "day" is referring to a particular day, not a longer time period, as in:
on that day (Gen. 15:18)
The same issue occurs with "hour". Today we usually think of an hour as consisting of 60 minutes. But an older usage of "hour" still persists for some speakers where "hour" refers to a longer period of time. For the latter group, including some English Bible translators, the "longer time" preposition, in, is used:

in that hour (Matt. 10:19; KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB,

I prefer to refer to a longer time period with the noun "time" as is done in Matt. 10:19 in these versions:

at that time (NRSV, NIV, TNIV, NET, CEV, NCV)
when the time comes (REB, TEV, GW)

The HCSB is unique with "at that hour."

There are two issues intersecting in this post:
  1. whether or not to literally translate biblical times longer than a day or hour with the English words "day" or "hour"
  2. which preposition is grammatically proper with various time nouns
My own preference is to use the word "time" in an English translation for an indefinite period of time, even when a biblical author literally used a word referring to an hour or day (but which was metaphorically extended to refer to a longer period of time). I believe that using the word "time" for time longer than an hour or day better reflects the way that most English speakers today speak and write. I think that most speakers today would not say "The Hour of Decision" (even though it has been the name of a religious radio program for many years). Today they would say something like "this is the time to make a decision", or, more concisely, "decision time".

I suspect that use of "hour" or "day" to refer to time periods longer than an hour or a day reflects the influence that English Bible versions (almost all of them translated literally until the last century) have had upon the English language. That influence is waning, and so am I :-)


At Wed Dec 19, 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

A couple of things.
First, in spatial use, at is for points (= 0-dim w.r.t. 1,2 or 3-dim.)

at the point on the line
*on the point on the line
*in the point on the line

at the spot of the foul (on a 2-dim surface)
*on the spot of the foul
*in the spot of the foul

on is used for locating objects w.r.t. 1 or 2-dim landmarks

a point on a line
*a point at a line
*a point in a line (there is a context in which this is OK, but it has to do with thinking of a line that isn't just 1 dim.)

the book on the table
*the book in the table
*the book at the table

and finally in locates objects w.r.t. to spaces (3-dim.)

the book in the drawer
*the book at the drawer
*the book on the drawer

There are some complexities in that certain situations can be looked at in different ways:

the house at the corner
the house on the corner

Further elaboration of these phrases reveals the difference.

Our house is at/??on the corner of Cowell and Rolando.

Our house is *at/on the corner lot.

The implication for time expressions is that English speakers think of small periods of time as points, but larger periods as located in more dimensionally elaborated conceptual regions. (Whether the use of on relates to writing and calendars is an interesting question.)

Second, on the use of hour and day words to represent short periods of time, our modern time keeping has given us a bigger set of leasts, which I have posted about before, and hence no need to use hour or day in such contexts.


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