Temporal and Spatial Agreement

A headline reads, “Gunman kills self, 5 others, at Texas roller rink.” It can’t be done that way, unless the gunman kills himself and the fiver others are killed later by a mechanism that the gunman had activate. But that’s not what happened. The gunman killed fiver persons, then turned the gun on himself. A headline or sentence should give clear and accurate description of an event by “mapping” the event, temporally or spatially. In this case, the correct temporal mapping is “Gunman kills 5, then self, at Texas roller rink,” which puts events in their correct  order.

A mapping error that I encounter often is the to-from locution, as in “the average price of gasoline rose to $3.88 a gallon from $3.79 a gallon.” That’s backwards. To be clear, a sentence should treat time sequentially; that is, the first thing that happens should precede the second thing that happens, and so on. In this case, clarity is achieved by writing or saying “the price of gasoline rose from $3.79 a gallon to $3.88 a gallon.” Doing it the other way around forces the reader or listener to go to the trouble of mentally unscrambling the statement. This is especially troublesome for a listener, who may then miss what comes next.

The to-from locution also is frequently (mis)applied to spatial relations, as in “X went to Chicago from New York.” If New York is the starting point of a journey, then New York should be mentioned first: “X went from New York to Chicago.” Again, doing it the other way around forces the reader or listener to unscramble the statement.

In sum, temporally and spatially backward statements cause  readers and listeners to do the work that is properly done by writers and speakers — if they care about the clarity and accuracy of what they write and say. It is all too evident that many writers and speakers do not care about being understood; they prefer to deliver verbiage and let the audience sort it.

One thought on “Temporal and Spatial Agreement

  1. Pingback: DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » Temporal and Spatial Agreement

Comments are closed.