I sometimes read the ‘Corrections and clarifications’ column of The Hindu. I don’t know why. I don’t really believe in prescriptivism, nor do I want complete linguistic anarchy. Probably just to find out the current state of linguistic legality and linguistic morality, from the point of the view of the editors as well as the grammatically sensitive readers (this adjective I didn’t want to use, but I couldn’t find better).
A couple of days ago I again read this column. It is written by the Readers’ Editor (RE) of the paper. In this particular edition (is that the right word?) of the column, a list of different kinds of errors made by journalists is given.
At one point the, the RE says:
There are some favourite expressions of journalists that keep recurring despite their absurdity.
And one of the examples given is ‘at around 4 p.m.’, which the RE says is:
a contradiction — at is specific, around is approximate
As it happens, I use this expression quite often.
So, according to the LAPD (Linguistic Abuse Police Department), I am guilty of Using Favourite Expressions Despite their Absurdity.
But I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I don’t really know what the real Linguists have to say about this, but here is my case:
- When you want to mention a time (say, 4 p.m.) for some purpose (such as making an appointment), you can mean either 4 p.m. sharp or you can mean approximately 4 p.m., give or take 5 (or 10 or 15) minutes.
- In the first (sharp) case, you would say ‘at 4 p.m.’, with ‘sharp’ added optionally, depending on various things such as your and the other person’s habits and the equation between the two etc.
- The question is, what will you say in the second (approximate) case? Would you say ‘meet me around 4 p.m.’? To me, it sounds very awkward.
- Even when you do say ‘at 4 p.m.’, you cannot really mean exactly 4 p.m. because it is just not possible physically. This is actually mentioned in some Linguistics literature, though I don’t remember where.
- Quite often when you say ‘at 4 p.m.’, you actually mean approximately at 4 p.m. Then what is the need of using ‘at around 4 p.m.’ if ‘at 4 p.m.’ can mean approximately at 4 p.m.? To make the approximate nature explicit.
- In that case, why not use ‘approximately at 4 p.m.’ instead of ‘at around 4 p.m.’? Because the latter sounds better (and shorter and more informal) than the former.
- My question: Is ‘around’ used at all for specifying time, excluding the cases where it starts a sentence or a clause? Since I am not a ‘native speaker’ of English, however many tons of pages of good English I may have read and however many thousands of publishable and published pages of English I may have written, my linguistic intuition about the Global Language may be questionable.
- Therefore, I can only resort to empirical evidence. So I searched for the term ‘around 4 p.m.’ on the Web. What I find is that ‘around 4 p.m.’ is used quite often. However, almost all of this usage is in fragments, not in complete sentences (again excluding the cases where it starts a sentence or a clause).
- In almost all complete sentences, the usage is ‘at around 4 p.m.’.
- So, it seems that hardly anyone uses ‘around 4 p.m.’ to specify an approximate time. Most people use ‘at around 4 p.m.’.
- Which makes perfect sense to me, because it doesn’t sound awkward to me and everyone understands perfectly what I mean. In fact, it even sounds more musical to me than just saying ‘around 4 p.m.’. Excluding the cases mentioned earlier.
- In linguistic terms, it can be explained by saying that ‘at’ in this case is the preposition, whereas ‘around’ is not a preposition. They are serving different syntactic and semantic purposes. ‘Around’ is modifying ‘4 p.m.’ to convert it, so to say, from an instant to an interval. ‘At’, on the other hand is doing what prepositions do. Connecting constituents and specifying the relationships among them.
- It might be said that ‘at’ can only occur with an instant, not with an interval. In that case, it can also be argued that in reality there is no such thing as an instant (a point on the time scale with zero ‘width’). There are only intervals (points do have some non-zero ‘width’) and ‘around’ is just increasing the size of this interval.
- If you do insist that there are instants and ‘at’ can come only with instants, then it can be explained thus. ‘At’ is indeed coming with an instant but that instant is not exactly at ‘4 p.m.’ but somewhere near ‘4 p.m.’ (3:55 p.m. or 4:05 p.m.). ‘Around’ is being used to express this uncertainty.
Thus, as far as I can see, ‘at around 4 p.m.’ is absolutely alright. There is nothing absurd about it. Perhaps the law to which the LAPD is referring is absurd. That seems very likely. After all, every law book has more than enough absurd laws.
By the way, I also searched in the BNC corpus and the only sentence returned for ‘around 4 p.m.’ was this:
George Mayo was last seen at around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
I think it is not surprising at all, I mean the fact that there are so many absurd laws and rules. If you are the law maker or the law enforcer (or both) and you only make reasonable laws and/or enforce only reasonable laws, you are, in the South Park language, a pussy. Because if you are not, you would be able to make absurd laws and rules and get them enforced.
That’s what having power means. Doesn’t it?
Any, well, pussy, can make and enforce reasonable laws and rules.