Tuesday 6 July 2010

On since/ago

A correspondent writes to ask whether it is possible to use sentences like I've been studying English since four years ago and Since three years ago, I've had several accidents.

It must be possible. The question wouldn't be coming up at all if people weren't being heard to use such sentences. What has happened, of course, is that there is a clash between the usage and the rule that is widely taught in grammar books.

The rule says that since and ago are incompatible, because since refers to an event that has current relevance whereas ago refers to a completed event in the past. Another way of putting it is when teachers say that ago is looking from the present towards the past, whereas since is looking from the past towards the present. There appears to be a clash of logic: people can't be doing the two things in the same sentence, goes the argument.

But of course they can. It's the same issue that arose when I discussed ago with present perfect have in an earlier post. It's perfectly possible to switch or conflate different points of view in a single sentence, especially in speech. And people have been doing this with since/ago for ages, both in phrases and clauses. In As You Like It (2.7.24) we hear Jacques reporting Touchstone saying 'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine'. In 1633, a character in John Ford's play The Broken Heart (3.5.63) says 'Tis long agone since first I broke my heart'. There's also a parallelism between ago and since which dates from the Middle Ages. Here's an example recorded in the OED, from Caxton (1489): 'Long time since... shee fell sick and died'.

The usage isn't as illogical as traditional grammars suggest. The logic goes something like this:

I haven't seen John since 2009.
2009 is a year ago.
Therefore, I haven't seen John since a year ago.

And this is how we most commonly hear the usage.

Every day, since a year ago today, I've been writing in my diary...
I haven't been this happy since a year ago.
Retail sales figures show consumer spending trend at highest since a year ago.
Costs have halved since a year ago.

There are over 2 million hits for 'since a year ago' on Google, several in quite formal written contexts, such as financial reporting. So, I have to conclude that there are two rules in English relating to ago and since, not one:

I want to say that a completed event in the past, expressed through ago, has no current relevance: I don't use since.

I want to say that a completed event in the past, expressed through ago, does still has current relevance: I do use since


Peter Harvey said...

I would say that since refers back from the present to a precise time-point in the past, however that point is defined. For example:

I got married four years ago
can give:
i) I have lived here since my marriage.
ii) I have lived here since I got married.
iii) I have lived since four years ago.

ii) can be seen as an elliptical version of
iia) I have lived here since I got married four years ago.
which seems to suggest that the construction is perfectly good.

David Crosbie said...

I'm pretty astonished that your post was necessary. What are these weird grammar books that maintain that since and ago are incompatible?
Are any of them really still in print?

DC said...

My blog is a reactive one, so I only write posts about issues that correspondents consider real. The best people to answer your query would thus be those, like the person who sent in the question, who have been taught the rule in that way. But a quick check on Google shows several English forums churning it out.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point, and interesting way of explaining the 'issue'. I don't think they should be used together, because as you said ' Another way of putting it is when teachers say that ago is looking from the present towards the past, whereas since is looking from the past towards the present.' And I have enough trouble mixing tenses as it is.

Lady Justine said...

It does sound a little odd, though. I can't put my finger on why. I think I'd usually go with 'For three years' instead of 'since three years ago', but 'for three years' suggests I've been doing it continuously, which might not be what I wish to say. I really think I'd go out of my way to avoid it, even though your explanation is perfectly rational and I hear it too from time to time. For instance, "I've been living here for three years" or "I've gone to art classes since July 2010"

Why do I think I just don't like it, even if it is grammatically sensible?! How bizarre!

Paul Keeling said...

A couple of (confused) thoughts spring to mind. First, to my mind since asks us to refer back to a specific point in time, and not to a more general period of time. So since three years wants to be specific but isn't. (Although why since precisely three years continues to sound wrong to my ears isn't clear, except perhaps that the precisely doesn't make up for the more general feel of the phrase.)
Second, isn't this a common usage of foreign speakers? For example, French speakers seem to like making a direct translation of depuis trois ans. It's in that context that this usage seems most familiar.

Martin Lapworth said...

Since 2007
(2007 = 3 years ago)
Since 3 years ago.
Grammatically it makes sense. But it wouldn't be used much by native speakers.
I think it's a direct translation of Spanish:
desde hace 3 años
desde = since
hace 3 años = 3 years ago

DC said...

The examples I used - and there are many more from native speakers - show that this is by no means just an example of foreign language interference.

Pilar Pérez said...

I'm an ESL teacher at a secondary school in Barcelona and I keep on teaching the use of SINCE and AGO as I was taught many years ago. It's true that my students use both words in the same sentence as a result of the interference with Spanish and Catalan.
How can I know when to correct them on the use of these words and others? Apart from reading your interesting articles and posts, is there any page on Internet where I can keep my English alive and up-to-date?
Thank you.

DC said...

There are lots of online forums. One of the best is the BBC world service site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/

Anonymous said...

Whilst it's certainly possible to use since and ago in the same phrase I really don't see the point in doing so. I can't think of any example where "for" wouldn't do the job more elegantly. To use since and ago in the same phrase you have to be talking about a time expression of duration that includes the present (since) and the past (ago), "for" does this perfectly.