Friday, 6 June 2008

On good times and bad

A correspondent learning English as a foreign language writes to say he is uncertain about whether he can say for four times (vs four times) and for several times (vs several times) in English. He has found the former in Othello and the latter in Frankenstein, he says.

The Othello example is a red herring. It is: 'I have looked upon the world for four times seven years' - so this is the use of times meaning 'multiplied by'. The preposition governs the noun years, and the usage is fine (although the phrase as a whole is stylistically unusual).

The Frankenstein one is found in Chapter 12 of Mary Shelley's book, and this is more interesting. It is: 'for several times they placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves'. That's certainly odd. The OED has 364 instances of the phrase several times in its entire database, and none of them have a preceding for.

Numerals provide occasional examples. The OED has 600 instances of three times, and there are two preceded by for - a British one in 1830 and a US one in 1919. So it may have been more common in earlier times - but two instances out of 600 isn't very convincing evidence for a norm. Today, as earlier, the standard usage for times meaning 'occasions / instances' is as follows:

I've been to France several/three times.
I knocked on the door several/four times.

Why do the for instances arise at all? I think it's the influence of the construction used for specific time periods, which readily allows an optional for:

I stayed there (for) several/four days.
I waited (for) several/three hours.

That's probably why there's some EFL uncertainty.

4 comments:

stoutfellow said...

I'm doubtful about the Frankenstein citation. Here's the full sentence: "They often. I believe, suffered the pangs of hunger very poignantly, especially the two younger cottagers, for several times they placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves." I take the "for" as being evidential - "I believe ..., for ...".

DC said...

Yes, I'm doubtful about it too. I suspect a lot of the cases are like this; several times seems to like being fronted, so it would follow a preceding conjunction. However, a lot depends on how you take the punctuation. I had looked up an online version, at literature.org, where the quotation is as follows (I paste it here): 'They often, I believe, suffered the pangs of hunger very poignantly, especially the two younger cottagers; for several times they placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves.' I'm afraid I'm not enough of a Shelley specialist to know what the original punctuation was, but a semi-colon, to my mind, moves the sense more in the direction of an adverbial.

stoutfellow said...

For what it's worth, the textual notes on my copy (from Three Gothic Novels, Penguin English Library) say, "The heavy punctuation of Vathek and Frankenstein has frequently been lightened[.]" If Shelley's text (from the 1831 edition) is regarded as heavily punctuated, that may weaken your argument, but I'm no expert either; it may be best to reserve judgement.

stoutfellow said...

I should add that I mistyped the passage in my first comment; that should be a comma after "often", not a period.