Saturday, March 12, 2011

time adverbials

I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but I found the SFMTA page a couple weeks ago, and was interested in a completely ordinary construction on their home page, namely that their railway "today carries over 200 million customers per year". If we take the more narrow meaning of "today" as the day of the utterance, this sentence is nonsensical. You can't have a certain number of customers per year carried on a single day. But of course that's not how we actually interpret the sentence. Here we use "today" in a more general, perhaps not quite metaphorical sense, simply to mean the current relevant time. That could be limited to the actual day in question, but it could also be a month, a year, or a millenium -- we could also say "today the planet has significantly lower oxygen levels than during the Cretaceous", and we'd be talking about the current geological era. This type of coercion is extremely common in English, though it isn't possible in every language. We're quite willing to reinterpret the semantics of a verb or time adverbial in order to make the sentence interpretable. The predicate "reach the summit" is a classic example of what is typically called an achievement, a predicate that happens all at once. You've either reached the summit or you haven't; there's nothing in between. But we're perfectly happy to say "they reached the summit in twenty minutes", because we attach a preparatory process that consists of the stages coming immediately before actually reaching the summit (hiking, climbing, etc.).