Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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:

  1. We’re approaching the deadline
  2. 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.)

4 Responses to “Forwards, Backwards, and Staying in Place”

  1. Russell said

    In fact, research has been done that shows a degree of priming effects for the interpretation of sentences like these. That is, people who are primed with thoughts of moving forward spacially are more inclined to interpret sentences with temporal metaphors with the “time is motion through space” metaphor; people primed with thoughts/images of things moving towards them are more inclined to use the “time moves from in front of me to behind me” metaphor.

    If you can see the archives of Psychological Science, check out volume 13 issue 2, the Boroditsky and Ramscar article. Otherwise, I found an article that mentions parts of their findings:

    http://www.stanford.edu/~jurafsky/cogsci03-mat-ram-borod2.pdf

  2. Anonymous said

    It gets worse, in a way. I remember being told in my Latin class that, to the Romans, the future was always behind you, while the past was ahead. You don’t go back in time, you go forward in time.

    Why? Because, inquit, “anybody can see the past, but the future kind of sneaks up on you.”

  3. Blar said

    Russell beat me to the Boroditsky. A few paragraphs near the start of the linked article summarize the work that’s been done using the “next Wednesday’s meeting” sentence. It is fast-becoming one of the most studied sentences in the English language. Boroditsky and her colleagues have gotten a lot of mileage out of it, taking it to airports, on trains, and to cafeterias, in addition to studying it in the lab. That sentence is one of the main support pillars of their theory that the metaphors inherent in our language influence the way we think (in this case, the two metaphorical ways of talking about time – the future moving towards us or us moving towards the future).

    If you can come up with any other sentences that are ambiguous between two metaphor-based interpretations, you could be well on your way to publishing something. If there is more than one sentence that is context-sensitive in this way, Boroditsky and colleagues will be pleased. If other sentences with multiple metaphorical interpretations are resistant to manipulations that prime different source domains, then that will not be good for Boroditsky and the neo-Whorfians.

  4. Neal said

    Thanks, Russell and Blar, for the Boroditsky and Ramscar reference. Having read an abstract of it, I now realize that the whole differing-metaphors idea that I quoted from Shetter’s blog should actually be attributed to B & R; their article appeared in 2002.

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