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Last and past

One of the minor fetishes still observed on The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk is an invented distinction between last and past.

If a reporter writes that “the students have been violently ill for the last four days,” a copy editor will change last to past. The thinking is, I suppose, that those are not the last days of the illness but merely the most recent, up to this point. We presumably imagine that if last were allowed to stand, the reader would assume that all the students had died.

I suspect this of being some Talmudic extension of the AP rule not to confuse recency with finality—an author’s last book being the one completed immediately before his death, his latest book being the one just published. The two terms can converge only once.

But “final” and “most recent” are both current senses of last. Referring to last year does not mean that you think that Harold Camping was right about the End Times.

Seeing little or no likelihood of confusion in the reader’s mind, I conclude that this distinction is another copy-desk-invented time-waster.

What I do not know is whether this fetish prevails in other shops as well. Readers, thoughts?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:18 PM | | Comments (21)
        

Comments

A guy liked to go in to Boston Friday night for fresh scrod and one night his favorite fish restaurant was closed so he hailed a cab. He asked the cabdriver, "Do you know any place where I can get scrod?" The cabbie said, "A lot of guys have asked me that in all kinds of ways, but this is the first time anyone has ever used the pluperfect subjunctive!"

I've worked in two shops where an editor (usually one) has enforced this distinction. And I've also worked in one, where I was under a strongly prescriptivist slot editor, where it wasn't. I don't think the distinction aids clarity, so I just do what the bosses say.

We follow it at my shop.

I agree this is a "copy-desk-invented time-waster," but fortunately, it does not appear to be epidemic. Even the often-pedantic AP stylebook deems "acceptable" the sentence "The last time it rained, I forgot my umbrella."

Some of us here sweat it; some don't. The people who sweat it change it, but they don't go around saying " 'last' is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG." Works for me -- it's clear either way.

I've never heard of this distinction before, either in my editing classes as an undergrad or in the various places I've worked. But I don't work in newspaper editing, so maybe that's why it's unfamiliar to me. At any rate, it seems rather silly and contrived.

The phrase which comes to my mind is "last news": if you hear the last news of a friend, that means they have died (somewhere else, presumably). "Latest news" doesn't carry that.

My shop follows it, but rather informally. I would say that the distinction is a good one to uunderstand, but only to have as one more piece of background brain data -- after all, there must be cases where one of the two is clearly wrong. I can't think of an example, though.

I was told to observe the distinction early in my days at the U-T in San Diego. The guy who enforced the rule is no longer with the paper, and while I can't speak for my colleagues, I've stopped changing "last" to "past."

I've used it in the past and not for the last time

Your last word on the subject?

This was Washington Post practice at least until 2008. I continue to observe it out of habit.

I've seen some people prefer one over the other on proofs and never quite understood why. I always thought the choice was backwards. If I say, "in the last two weeks," I'm referring to the weeks that are the last as I'm speaking. It never occurred to me that it might be interpreted as "the last two weeks of time itself." I still don't see that happening. I also think copy editors should be glad English doesn't operate completely by rules. If it did, we would quickly be replaced with software.

It's enforced at the (London) Times, and I would have been happy to post that fact here, John, if the log-on process for commenting was not only agonising but (because 'Remember personal info?' doesn't work) relentless.

"Fourteen inches of rain fell in the last two days." Here, "last" means "past," not "final," but there's no risk of misunderstanding, whichever choice is used. Changing to "past" doesn't hurt anything, however, and trains the editor (and possibly the reader) to respond to the distinction in those cases where meaning would be affected: "Fourteen inches of rain fell in the first two days of last week but it has not rained at all in the last/past two days," "The senator planned a major speech for sometime in the last/past three days of the legislative session."

With all the problems in the world, I can't see the point of telling editors "You've made this text too clear. You're wasting energy on being precise when you don't need to be."

Here's a pertinent joke: "Say, Bob, I didn't see you in church for my last sermon." "Gee, Reverend, if I had known it was going to be the last one, I'd have brought the whole family!"

This distinction would add an interesting dimension to considering Alan Resnais's already surreal "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961). Thanks, John.

"Last" and "past" are separate words with distinct differences in nuance and usage, and they are not interchangeable. When applied to describe a period of time originating in the past and continuing to the present (to the very time of writing), the correct word is "past", seen in this such example: "I have not purchased a print newspaper in the past ten years." Substitution of "last" in this case is incorrect and unacceptable, as the adjective form can only mean "final" or "most recent". If "last" is used to mean "final" when applied to time, the usage must describe a period that has both originated and concluded in the past: "The last three years of the Clinton presidency were marked by a remarkable decline in print journalism, with many newspapers disappearing completely." And when used to refer to "most recent", both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries offer only the forms "last year" and "last week", respectively. Even the phrase itself "most recent" implies a series of three or more items, with the final item being delineated by "last". Such usage would include: "Last year, the city's two competing newspapers merged in an attempt to cut costs and somehow survive." or "Last Christmas was especially tough on journalists, as there was a dearth of press releases to repurpose into 'legitimate' news stories." Years, weeks, and Christmases occur one after another in a linear fashion, and can be referred to with "last", although a newshound might say "this past Christmas" for variety. This form however can not be inflated to replace "past" by carelessly tossing a "the" in front and dumping a plural of a time counter in back. "I've spent the past hour or so in hyperbolic shock at how ignorance of the simple usages of 'last' and 'past' have been disregarded as 'fetishes' of grammarians working thanklessly at copy desks. Not since my last year in university, now over ten years past, have I witnessed such an egregious disregard for these sacred words with so callous of hubris."

Grammarist, you have the right to remain silent. You have the right to consult the Oxford English Dictionary. If you cannot afford an Oxford English Dictionary, one will be shown to you.

The OED cites this sense of "last": "Occurring or presenting itself next before a point of time expressed or implied in the sentence; the present time, or next before; most recent, latest."

The citations go back to 1377, in Langland's "Piers Plowman." Whether you approve of it or not, it has been a common usage in English for more than six centuries.

It's a perfectly good and clear distinction. Why not keep it? How many other word meanings do you wish to blur or get rid of altogether?

Any that copy editors are wasting valuable time on.

Everywhere I've been the distinction has been made. In most cases context makes it clear. The question for me is whether there should be a distinction between "last year" and "during the last year." One refers to a specific time, the other a concluded period in the past. Why not end all argument and keep the clarity of "during the past year?""

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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