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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Help, help!!

I have noticed confusion regarding the use of the words back, forward and up as applied to events in time, timetables, and schedules. If one is referring to a planned future event, and if said event is going to be moved back, in my thinking the concept is that the event is being moved further into the future. However, I have encountered others who would interpret this expression to suggest that the event is being moved to an earlier date. This follows the logic that when a historical event or a transaction is backdated, the event is being moved closer to the beginning of time, the birth of Christ, the fall of Rome, or whatever.

What are the rules regarding the use of these words in describing time-relevant events?

Andrew Kaser
Portland, Oreg.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

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Back, forward, and up are the verbal equivalents of M. C. Escher drawings. One thing dictionaries will tell you is that back means "in, into, or toward the past" -- an idea that, when applied to the future, suggests that move back should mean "make earlier." But dictionaries also define the word as meaning something like "farther away" ("Stand back!") -- and obviously the later future is further from the here and now than the near future is. In actual use, with respect to the future most people, most of the time, use move back to mean "make later" ("Let's move the dinner party back from Friday to Saturday"). What this usage has in common with the use of back with respect to the past is movement in time away from the present.

As for forward: In future contexts (say, "What if we move the date of the party forward?"), on the one hand the word seems obviously to mean "further into the future" and therefore to be a synonym for back, and on the other it seems of course to be the opposite of back ("I just can't decide whether to move it forward or back"). The picture is no clearer with respect to past contexts. Forward is used very inconsistently.

The easiest word of the three is up: in any context move up tends to mean "make earlier." That is, most people use it to mean the opposite of back with respect to the future and the same as back with respect to the past. Piece of cake, right?

If, though, you ever find yourself wanting to discuss the postponement of an event, now in the past, that was in the future when the change was made, God help you: "We forgot to tell him a month ago when we decided to move the party back a week." Unfortunately for this subject in general, at some point the future is certain to become the past, making back and forward in such contexts absolutely baffling.

My conclusion is that when you're referring to movement in time, if context doesn't spell out the direction of movement you mean, you'll do well to avoid saying "I need to move the dinner party back" or "I need to move the date forward." How about "I need to postpone the party" or "I need to move the party to an earlier date"? The alternative is to be prepared to be hospitable when, say, the dinner guests who are now expected two weeks from Saturday ring the doorbell this Saturday instead.

Where I come from, home town means where you came from, though others seem to use it to mean where you live. I live in San Diego, California; I was born in Canton, Ohio; but what I regard as my home town is Massillon, Ohio, where I grew up. Is home town a phrase whose usage varies regionally?

A. T. Young
San Diego, Calif.

Throughout America a person's home town (which some would write as one word) can be where he or she was born, grew up, or lives now. Home is indeed where the heart is.

I see lead used in place of led to indicate the past tense of that verb in an increasing number of references. I thought the first few instances were typos, but I've now seen it enough to be convinced that it's intentional. Have I missed something lately, or are these writers confusing the conjugation of lead with read?

Roger Cohn
Pine Plains, N.Y.

People bump into me on the sidewalk pretty often, but even so, I don't think it's intentional. The present-tense spelling lead for the past-tense led is nothing more than a very easy mistake to make, given that the metal is pronounced like the past-tense verb but spelled like the present-tense one; given the false analogy with the verb read, which you note; and given that the common words bread, dead, and head are miscues as well.

Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Illustrations by David Suter.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Word Court - 99.09; Volume 283, No. 3; page 108.