Use Time-Related Words With Caution

I’ve come to see time-related words as potentially dangerous to use in writing, because they have ambiguities that are difficult to parse. I didn’t notice this until I started to work with many people for whom English is a second language. These people taught me that phrases I take for granted can be very confusing and illogical.

Here’s an example: “I avoid using these words, as they are confusing.”


What’s wrong with that? The issue is the word “as.” I used it to mean “because,” but another meaning could be “I avoid using these words, at the same time during which they are confusing.”

There’s an entire category of these words. I’ve become sensitized to them and I try to avoid them when I notice them. Some of them are massively confusing to non-English-speakers. Some are easy to avoid, because they don’t feel like very good grammar to me. The example of “as” is one of those; I have never felt that it’s a very good usage to substitute it for “because.” But others are much more subtle and are certainly not slang or bad grammar, which makes them extra dangerous.

It’s surprisingly hard for me to remember exact phrases in which these words caused a lot of problems, but I know I’ve seen really bad examples that didn’t “jump out” as confusing, until I was surprised by someone (completely reasonably) misinterpreting them. If I remember better examples, I’ll update this post.

Here’s a list of words I try to treat with caution.

  • As
    • Discussed above.
  • Once
    • Meanings: after; a single occurrence; at a point in time
    • Confusing usage: “Once you called me, I was in a good mood.”
    • Does this mean that I felt better after you called me, or you called me and it happened to be at a good time, or it was fine that you called me one time, but more than once was too much?
  • Since
    • Meanings: from that time onwards; because
    • Confusing usage: “Since it was morning, I drank coffee.”
    • Does this mean that I drank coffee continuously from morning until now?
  • Until
    • Confusing meaning to non-English speakers: before; up to a point in time
    • Confusing usage: “I won’t begin this job until Monday.”
    • Non-English speakers often find it hard to grasp the nuance of the usage: what’s the difference between “until Monday” and “before Monday?” Until can mean that something will be continuously true prior to the time mentioned, and can sometimes be negated to mean that something will begin at the time mentioned. Consider the difference between “I’ll finish before Monday” and “I won’t start until Monday.” The latter is better as “I’ll start no sooner than Monday.” To see why this is less confusing, consider why a non-English speaker might say “I will finish until Monday,” meaning they will complete it before Monday. I’ve heard people say that type of thing many times.
  • While
    • Meanings: during the interval of time; simultaneously with; although
    • Confusing usage: “While the sun sets, it will rise again.”
    • In my opinion, substituting “while” for “although” is unskillful writing.
  • Yet
    • Meanings: until; as soon as; now; already; anticipated future; although/but
    • Confusing usage: “He took two aspirin, yet some pain lingered.”
    • There are so many and so vague temporal meanings of “yet” that I feel it’s in poor taste to use it in any nonspecific way. My example sentence doesn’t make it clear whether I am referring to the pain’s temporal existence, or using “yet” as a conjunction to point out that the medicine didn’t work.
  • Still
    • Meanings: during a time that continues now and might end; nevertheless
    • Confusing usage: “You can change the setting if you think it’s wise. Still, I prefer not to.”
    • Does this mean that I presently have an opinion that I expect to change in the future? Or does it mean that I understand your opinion and disagree with it?

The difficulty of explaining why these words and phrases can have tricky usages is exactly the same difficulty that non-English speakers are experiencing when they react in ways that don’t seem to make sense. There are no hard-and-fast rules about these words. At least, not as far as I know. I think if you look in the dictionary you’ll find that all of them are acceptable to use in these and other ways. But my personal preference is to try to avoid ambiguity, and choose more explicit words that don’t have overloaded, vaguely similar, and confusingly different or contradictory meanings.

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.