Wednesday, July 08, 2009

at this time

For completely unrelated reasons, I just checked whether I had any unpublished drafts in my blogger account and found this one from 364 days ago, which is oddly similar yesterday's topic. That was about at the time, but this one is about at this time. It started:

Reader (though he might not be a reader anymore, since it's taken me so long to get to his request) Jon wrote to ask:
I wondered if you could explain why Americans use the phrase "at this time", where a Brit would say "now", or nothing at all.

I recently returned from the US. While on a Washington State Ferry I heard over the tannoy, "Vehicle owners should return to their vehicles at this time."

It seems strange to me, but working for a US company with Americans in the
office, I hear it a lot.
I have to say, Jon, that it's not something I think of as particularly American. (But tannoy, that's British--originally a trade name. AmE would be loudspeaker or more formally public address system--which would work very formally in BrE too.)

That's as far as the draft got. I've just checked some UK and US newspaper sites and found that the Guardian (UK) website had 277,000 instances of at this time, mostly repeats of "Sorry, commenting is not available at this time. Please try again later." That seems like exactly the type of 'empty' at this time Jon was asking about. The Boston Globe (US) and the Times (UK) both had around 5000 hits for the phrase, the Chicago Tribune 12,000. Now, searching these, there's no way to know (a) how many of the examples are the use of the phrase that Jon was talking about, (b) how many are quoted American speech.

So, let's try government sites--and let's limit it to orders of the form "please * at this time" (* being the wildcard in a Google search). The.gov.uk sites immediately examples where a now (or nothing) would have sufficed:
There is currently a suspect bag in Park Place W1. Cordons are at Arlington st and Park Place please avoid at this time

Thank you for your patience and please accept our apologies at this time.

Can you please send us at this time the form of wording your officers are considering so that we can review it at an early stage

So I would be much obliged if you could please freeze the application at this time till I gather required specifications to help you assess the planning
Now, of course, one could say 'Look at all that creeping Americanism in British English'. Or you could say 'Look at all that officialese where they try to use more words to sound more formal'. Or you could say that at this time sounds less 'at this very second' than now does, and therefore sounds less bossy than now.

At any rate, I'd need more evidence of a comparative and historical nature in order to conclude that the origin of this is American--since, as we've seen many times before, just because something strikes you as new and annoying doesn't mean it's not native to your country's dialect. So, I'm putting this in the 'project ideas' file--if one of our students would like to research this using corpus data next year, they're welcome to a neat little project.

In other news...the voting is now on at the Lexiophiles site for the top 100 language blogs. Last year I made it to a respectable number 40, but this year they've added categories and a voting process--the outcome will be 50% based on readers' votes. So, if you'd like to support SbaCL this year, please click on the button!

23 comments:

Jonathan Beeston said...

Still reading Lynne. Thanks for the post; better late than never!

lynneguist said...

Glad to hear it!

robert61 said...

Kind of bossy sounding, isn't it?

Wendy said...

"At this time" really means something different than "now", at least to me (an American working in government and military for ages and ages). If I hear "patrons are asked to leave the park at this time" I have time to hit the toilet, maybe grab another coke, meander over to the exits, wait for a friend to catch up. If I hear "patrons are asked to leave the park now" I pick up my bag and start hustling to the exit, because something is going to blow up pretty darn quick.

Zach said...

To me if I hear 'at this time' it has a slightly different meaning. I would be waiting to be given a time, or at least head over to see if they had posted a time up. I wouldn't immediately think they meant its time to leave now.

Doug Sundseth said...

For "loudspeaker" or "public address system" I think "PA System" or just "PA" is most common in my AmE idiolect.

I agree that "now" has more immediacy than "at this time".

marek said...

To my BrE ear, the problem with "at this time" is not whether or not it is more insistent or less polite than "no", it is that the phrase is completely redundant.

In the latter three of the four examples where the phrase is italicised, I can see no detectable loss of meaning if the phrase is omitted, the last particularly clearly, since the only way the request makes sense at all is if the freeze starts now and continues until the conditions for unfreezing have been met in the future.

Only in the first example does simply leaving the phrase out result in a sentence which doesn't quite sound right, but that's more because I expect "avoid" to be transitive. A BrE announcement of that kind would be more likely to say "avoid the area". Again though, if there is a suspect bag, it is pretty obvious that the right time to avoid the area is now.

lynneguist said...

Marek, that was a BrE announcement of that kind. Note the reference to W1!

Joel A. Shaver said...

I don't remember hearing the word intercom very frequently in the recent past (un-recency illusion? antiquity illusion?), in reference to a PA/tannoy-like speaker on the wall. When I was in elementary/primary school, we all called this the intercom. I know that there are some technical differences between the two, mainly the ability to communicate both ways. Many intercoms are integrated into phone systems. Do other people use intercom as a synonym for PA or tannoy?

lynneguist said...

Now that you mention it, I think we did call the PA system in our primary/elementary school 'the intercom'. Or 'the speaker'--like 'Mark gets to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the speaker/intercom' today. Nowadays, I'd only use 'intercom' for the kind of internal telephone set-up that they had for the principal to phone the teachers (you don't even see these things anymore--it's all hooked up to the telephone now) or for the thing that you speak into to get someone to buzz you into a building, etc.

I'd forgotten that we'd used 'intercom' for that. Weird.

biochemist said...

Another over-formal phrase: 'Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult/tragic time' ... only the first half-dozen words are needed.

Andy JS said...

Hi Lynne,

I sent you an email a few weeks ago; maybe you didn't receive it or maybe you just found it too boring to reply to. Anyway, this is what it said:

There is one thing in particular which intrigues me about American English, (and you may have already written about this on your blog), which is the way that often Americans will often simply use "I" where British people will use "I have" or "I've", For example, an American might say "I got it". When I hear that usage, I feel like asking the question "when?" To a British speaker, it's as if by putting "have" in, you make it clear that it's something that's just been done, or been done fairly recently. If you just say "I got it" it feels to me as if you should follow it up by specifying a time, such as as "I got it today" or "I got it last week". I'd be interested to hear your comments on this. I apologise if you've already talked about this subject on your blog.

Thanks,
Andrew

lynneguist said...

@Andrew: I did send you a response--and it hasn't bounced back, so perhaps check your spam filter? I will re-send it to your email address. That topic has already been discussed on the blog, and I do ask that people do not try to start/request new topics in the comments, as it presents problems of searchability/usability. See the Comments Policy (available from the left margin of the blog home page).
Thanks.

lynneguist said...

...or I should say it's something that's partly been done on this blog, and part of it is on the very long waiting list.

Ginger Yellow said...

It may just be a funtion of the ancient buildings I was educated in, but I was always fascinated as a child by the pervasiveness of tannoys/intercoms in American schools in pop culture. In my schools we just had assembly and some noticeboards. If the headmaster wanted to speak to a teacher urgently he'd knock on the door of the classroom.

Andy JS said...

Lynne, thanks for your reply. I'm sorry about breaking the blog rules, I was just interested to hear your reply and obviously something strange happened to your email. I'll have to check my spam folder to see if your email goes in there; I normally just clear all the spam away without even looking at it.

On the current blog subject, I was fascinated when I went to Florida when I was about 10 years old to constantly hear "at this time" being used, but also "momentarily". That last word causes a lot of problems because it can obviously mean either in a moment or for a moment. It was mainly being used for "in a moment" in America as far as I can tell. Although I think most British people understand what it means perfectly well, I don't think I've ever heard a British person use the word in any sense.

lynneguist said...

There's a link to a bit on momentarily back here.

I did resend the mail to you, Andy--so if you haven't got(ten) it by now, it's (BrE) gone missing twice!

Andy JS said...

I had no idea the phrase "gone missing" was not used in America. How interesting.

lynneguist said...

Currently it's front-runner for the BrE-to-AmE 'word' of the year, since there's been a lot of commentary on it from Americans who HATE it and don't realize it's good in BrE.

Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

Speaking of time, I've noticed YouTuber CGPGrey use the phrase "for another time" a bit, often in the context of "that's a story for another time". Is this a particularly strong set phrase in AmE? In Ireland we'd (I think!) always say "that's a story for another day".

Albert Welch said...

Massachusetts age 25-

My sense of "at this time" is a deliberate contrast with "about this time" whereas now by itself can refer to either prepositional phrase.

"At this time" also conveys a sense of "finally","at last", "so far" or "as of yet".

David, London said...

I have to say that having flown to the USA many times (from the UK) I do consider "at this time" to be a primarily American phrase.

Be it the PA/tannoy announcement "Would all passengers please approach the gate at this time" or on the plane "would all passengers please put their electronic devices away at this time".

I think I've even been on hold by the airline and heard "There is no one to take your call at this time"

In Britain, I'm sure the phrase would be encountered in the following manner: "At this time of economic austeritiy..." or "at this time of day..."

It's just its use at the end of a sentence to denote "now" that I specifically associate with my trips to America!

David Crosbie said...

I don't know how typical i am of British speakers of my generation or younger, but I would use at this time only to mean 'for the present'.

e.g. We will not be making any announcement at this time

This explains why Lynne's last example doesn't seem so odd (not to me, that is)

So I would be much obliged if you could please freeze the application at this time....

Whatever the intended meaning of at this time, the main contrast with now is the effect on the rhythm of the sentence. When the first three examples from go.uk websites are auded (silently read) they sound ponderous, even pompous, which doesn't seem inconsistent with their source.

There was a fashion in BrE, which may have passed, for replacing now with something that added more weight to the rhythm. Unfortunately, the choice was at this moment in time. The expression was, for a time, much critiqued and much used in parodies of pretentious speech.

My main beef with Vehicle owners should return to their vehicles at this time is that it is (for me) rhythmically awkward, and it dilutes (for me) the immediacy of now.