Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It Could Be Months

Posted by Neal on August 5, 2011

I was reading about the temporary funding deal for the FAA this morning, and was confused by this paragraph:

“This issue is still unresolved as far as I’m concerned,” said Dan Stefko, an engineer with the FAA who has been out of work for nearly two weeks. “It could be 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.”

The first time I read it, I was imagining a job that required an FAA engineer to visit different airports on a schedule. The temporary fix was no good because … he had been unable to do his job in the place he had visited most recently, and by the time his route took him there again, it would be 1 1/2 months later, and by then problems that he could have fixed now would have gotten worse. Was that it?

I read it again, and this time took the exact same spot metaphorically, referring to a sudden lack of funding. I finally began to get Stefko’s point: The temporary fix was no good because in six weeks the problem would have to be addressed again. Well, that’s always an obvious objection to a temporary fix, so why was it so hard for me to get that meaning?

I blame the It could be before syntax. If he had said,

We could be right back in the exact same spot in 1 1/2 months

I would have had no problem. By putting the time period up front, Stefko was putting the focus on it, and the usual reason for that is to emphasize how long something is going to take. That is, unless you do something to cancel that assumption, like

It could be as little as 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.

I did some Google searching for “It could be * months|years before”, and just skimming through the first few pages of results, didn’t find any that were emphasizing how little time might pass before something happened. What about you? Can you get the “as little as” reading with It could be ___ before constructions?

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4 Responses to “It Could Be Months”

  1. Ellen said

    Oops – you need to get rid of “in the” in the revised statement:

    We could be in the right back in the exact same spot in 1 1/2 months

    (Hope that makes sense – hey, I read the whole post!)

  2. The Ridger said

    For me, too, it’s odd. I’d expect the month and a half to be a long time (it could be six weeks instead of the usual two), but I also have some trouble with that second “could”.

  3. Without the “as little as” or a similar modifier, I have a hard time picking up on the fact that the speaker thinks 1 1/2 months is a quick time.

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