Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Time for the Saving of Daylight

Posted by Neal on March 13, 2011

Nancy Friedman tweeted last week,

Now that we have daylight saving time 8 months of the year, shouldn’t it be renamed “standard time”?

I immediately retweeted, since this is what I’ve been thinking for months. In fact, I’d probably say it’s my biggest objection to the extension of daylight saving time. Gordon Hemsley responded to us both with this complication I hadn’t considered:

Then we’d have to rename the other 4 months Daylight-Losing Time.

Daylight-losing time … no one wants that. On the other hand, there wouldn’t be any confusion over whether to call it daylight-losing time or daylight-losings time, since losings isn’t nearly as common a word as savings. To tell you the truth, I’d been saying “daylight-savings time” for years, until I listened to this episode of Grammar Girl and learned that the original and preferred term is daylight-saving time. The form is saving and not savings because it’s just an ordinary gerund, turned into a compound noun by putting a direct object in front of it, the same as you do with hog-killing, cherry-picking, and pie-eating.

I didn’t believe it at first. I figured whatever usage guides GG had been looking at must have had some prejudice against the pluralia tantum (“plural only”) noun savings. True, savings usually refers to money, but I didn’t see any problem extending the concept to time, since you can certainly do that with the verb save. You can save both money and time, and the money or time that you save can be referred to as your savings, right?

But the story checked out, as I found when I went searching through the Google News Archive. Garner’s Modern American Usage confirms it, too: “the singular form daylight-saving time is the original one, dating from the early 20th century…. So my question is why people started calling it daylight savings time. Garner proposes this explanation:

The rise of the plural form (daylight-savings time) appears to have resulted from the avoidance of a miscue: when saving is used, readers might puzzle momentarily over whether saving is a gerund … or a participle….

In other words, we don’t want readers asking themselves, “Does this mean ‘the time for saving daylight’ or ‘the time that saves daylight’?”

Here’s my problem with calling it daylight-saving time. The way you pronounce this kind of noun phrase, with a compound gerund modifying a noun, is that you put primary stress on the first word, and secondary stress on the modified noun. So with this pattern, we getting HOG-killing time, PIE-eating contest, BABY-sitting service. In fact, this is generally how you put stress on compound nouns composed of words A, B, and C, where A and B form a compound that modifies C. Other examples are ANGEL food cake and BABY-butt legs, or INCOME tax time. But I don’t put primary stress on daylight; I put primary stress on saving(s), and as far as I know, most other speakers do, too. (If I’m wrong about you, comments are open.)

Why do I pronounce it as daylight SAVING(S) time? Actually, I don’t know. Even if I was interpreting it as “time that gives you a savings of daylight,” that would still mean that daylight and savings formed a compound that in turn modified time, so it would still be pronounced as DAYLIGHT savings time, wouldn’t it? Going by the examples of model DOGhouse and gourmet CAT food, I would expect the pronunciation daylight SAVINGS time to mean “a savings time that has to do with daylight” — maybe a time when you save money during the day but not at night.

Maybe it’s significant that daylight saving(s) time is a compound word, while model doghouse and gourmet cat food are still transparently compounds (doghouse, cat food) modified by a third word (model, gourmet). Or maybe the stress is landing on saving(s) because speakers are thinking of it as contrastive focus: STANDARD time as opposed to daylight SAVING(S) time, with the initial-S commonality subtly encouraging this.

Whatever the reason, this stress pattern is very ingrained with me, and if I use it while saying daylight saving time, I end up with daylight SAVING time, which sounds really goofy. It sounds like another contrastive focus: daylight SAVING time as opposed to the gloomy daylight LOSING time that Gordon brought up.

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7 Responses to “Time for the Saving of Daylight”

  1. Wouldn’t it be easier just to rename DST as “summer time” as the UK did in the middle of the First World War? If nothing else, it obviates the trouble of “daylight saving/s.”

  2. The Ridger said

    Hard to have “summer time” in March (which, as the Russians say, “isn’t spring but the prespring”) let alone November… But it would be easier. Possibly wistfully wishful, too.

  3. Glen said

    I attribute the confusion to general confusion about what DST actually accomplishes. It’s obvious what a “pie-eating contest” is all about, even if you’ve never heard of one. Likewise for “gourmet cat food.” The same cannot be said for DST.

    Also, the way I pronounce it — and I’ll bet the way you pronounce it as well, since we grew up in the same household — doesn’t put more stress on the second word (daylight SAVING(S) time), but instead places equal stress on the first two words.

  4. Jonathon said

    Growing up, I always said it (and presumably always or almost always heard it) as “daylight SAVINGS time”. A little while ago I tried dropping the s, but I think I’ve given up on it. It sounds affected to me.

  5. Chris Weimer said

    As an adjective, it’s “daylight-saving time”, i.e. a time which saves daylight. But an -s can be added with no strong objection if time is dropped. While there is a hog-killing tradition, you can still go to the hog-killings. Pie-eatings sounds odd, but doesn’t read so.

  6. Just to add an international perspective: here in Australia, there never has been a tendency for people to say “daylight savings time”. Virtually everyone refers to it as “daylight saving time” and so it’s been for as long as I’ve been around. Doesn’t make us grammatically superior, of course. Just that by historical accident, the idea that it should be “savings” happens never to have taken hold.

  7. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Two theories:

    Could it be that the number of syllables comes into play with the stress? Your examples of “HOG-killing time”, “PIE-eating contest”, “ANGEL food cake”, “INCOME tax time”, “model DOGhouse”, and “gourmet CAT food” follow the pattern of [1 2 1], [1 2 2], or [2 1 1] (taking “doghouse” as the not-quite-compound “dog house”), whereas “daylight(-)saving(s) time” is [2 2 1]. (I’ve left out “BABY-sitting service” because the base verb is babysit, not sit modified by baby. I’ve left out “BABY-butt legs” because… well, I just did; but it would still follow the [2 1 1] pattern, anyway.)

    Also, and I think this is more likely, it could be that “daylight(-)saving(s) time” is just an idiom that has received a fixed stress pattern due to reasons lost to history. I’m not sure anyone really thinks of it in terms of saving daylight—it’s just that time of year you mess with the clocks. Anyone who pronounces it with stress on “daylight” is probably just trying force the “logical” way of pronouncing it (just like trying to restore the s-less form for people who don’t have it).

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