Forwards, Backwards, and Staying in Place
Posted by Neal on August 31, 2005
An anonymous commentator responded to a post from last year:
How about if you move a meeting “one day forward.” I always think it means forward in time, like if you had a time machine, so if you move it forward from the 11th, it goes to the 12th. Other people say that would be moving it backward. I think they’re backward.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. I remember being confused at a meeting years ago when the chair said that some upcoming meeting would have to be moved not forward, but back. Well, any reader of time travel stories knows that back in time means earlier. But the reactions of everyone else in the meeting made it clear that in this case, back meant further in the future. Weird.
Speaking of the future, you can find an actual online posting coming to us from one week in the future at Language Miniatures. This is a once-a-month linguistics blog maintained by William Z. Shetter (see Languagehat’s introduction here), and his latest post asks the very same question. (Well, not very same in the sense of the identical words, but you get the idea.) He writes:
Here’s an ordinary sentence –
That meeting set for next Wednesday will have to be moved forward two days.
When you hear this, what pops into your mind? Does it mean that the meeting will be Monday, or will it be Friday? Which direction does the ‘arrow of time’ seem to be moving? It can’t go both ways at once, and yet either one might sound right to you. No matter which one you chose, be assured that you’re not wrong: about half of all speakers of English think it means one direction, and the other half the other. Why this curious ambiguity that we usually donմ even notice?…
Now look at these examples:
- We’re approaching the deadline
- The deadline is approaching
These two amount to more or less the same thing, but notice that theyղe built on two very different, in fact opposite, metaphors. In (1), it’s the we that is moving along the imaginary line and the deadline is in a fixed position. In (2), the opposite happens: here it’s the deadline that is moving and we’re in the fixed position.
Now we’re ready to go back and look again at that sentence we began with. Think about what that word forward means. The trick here is to ask the question ‘forward from what point of view?’ Now you see that we’re basing the meaning of forward in a sentence like this on the same two opposite metaphors we ran into above with the deadline examples. If you feel that it’s you yourself who are moving along the imaginary line, then obviously two days forward from Wednesday will be Friday. But if in your imagination it’s the meeting that is moving, it’s coming closer to you, so from the meeting’s point of view forward can only be Monday.
That’s a nice, concise analysis, much better than the awkward “pulley of time” model I constructed in order to make sense of meetings moving forward or backward. Somewhere, though, I read a paper in which it was shown that the interpretation of forward or back also depended on whether the event was anticipated to be pleasant or unpleasant. Thus, whether forward or backward, moving a meeting was more often taken to mean postponing it, while moving a party or a date was more often taken to mean having it earlier. (If you’ve read this article and have the title and author, let me know and I’ll give credit.)