Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Before or Since

Posted by Neal on March 1, 2011

The latest book Doug and Adam and I have been reading aloud is <Joan Dash's The Longitude Prize, a young adults’ version of the story made popular by Dava Sobel. In the latest chapter, we read about a famous trip that would have suffered a lot fewer casualties had there been a reliable method for finding longitude at sea. It was the voyage of the HMS Centurion in 1744, under the command of George Anson. At one point, the Centurion captured a Spanish treasure ship, and

Anson kept the treasure of solid gold ingots, and gold and silver coin, whose value would come to about fifty million pounds in today’s money — no greater prize has been captured by an English ship before or since. (p. 78)

Interesting, that before or since. Let’s take the disjuncts one at a time. With since, we would need to use the present perfect tense, has been captured, because we’re talking about a period of time that started in the past and extends until right now. The past perfect, had been captured, doesn’t work:

No greater prize has been captured by an English ship since.
*No greater prize had been captured by an English ship since.

With before, on the other hand, it’s the present perfect that’s no good. What we want is the past perfect, because we’re talking about a period of time that began at the beginning of English history and extended to that date in 1744:

*No greater prize has been captured by an English ship before.
No greater prize had been captured by an English ship before.

How do you put both thoughts into one sentence? You could do it the long way, and use two verb phrases (leaving captured understood in the second one if you wish):

No greater prize had been captured by an English ship before, or has been [captured] since.

But what if you want to avoid the repetition? Which tense do you choose? Dash chose the present perfect, to go with since. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), there seems to be a fairly even split between present perfect and past perfect, with a few “split the difference” simple past tenses thrown in there, too; for example:

nothing they did before or since had the impact of their major-label debut.

Now I know I’ve heard and read the expression before or since many times, but this is the first time I’ve noticed the conflicting demands it puts on verb tenses that refer to the disjoint intervals of time that before and since establish. The reason, I believe, is that there are constructions where the verb tense doesn’t need to be expressed, so the confict never gets thrust out into the open. For example, in this other example from COCA,

Ibn Khaldun explained this better than anyone before or since.

we have an ellipsed (i.e. missing) verb phrase between anyone and before or since. Should it be understood as anyone has explained it or anyone had explained it? Neither works with both before and since, but since it’s not expressed, there’s no problem!

Another situation where you don’t need a tensed verb is in a reduced relative clause. To illustrate with one more example from COCA,

The New Madrid earthquakes overshadow all other midcontinent quakes recorded before or since.

the verb recorded could be expanded out to that had been recorded or that have been recorded (or in a different context, that were recorded or that are recorded). But since it’s not expanded, there’s no conflict! Sneaky, huh?

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One Response to “Before or Since”

  1. Ran said

    I think that logically, “before or since” should use the present perfect, even though “before” alone would use the past perfect.

    If “before” (past perfect) covers a time period like this:

    <————————|                         [now]

    and “since” (present perfect) covers a time period like this:

                            |————————[now]

    then “ever” (present perfect) covers a time period like this:

    <————————————————[now]

    so the “continues up till now” seems to supersede the “begins at time −∞” in choosing between present perfect and past perfect.

    “Before or since” covers a discontiguous time period like this:

    <——————–| |————————-[now]

    which logically seems to pattern with “ever” and use the present perfect.

    That said, I definitely had an “oh, that feels weird” moment reading that sentence. So, logic may not enter into it. :-P

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