February 22, 2010

It’s Been a Long, Long Time

Despite the seeming objectivity of time in our daily lives, both our perception of time and of descriptions of time intervals can be affected by circumstances. The dull sermon seems to go on forever, and there is now empirical evidence that time does seem to pass more quickly for the elderly than for the young.

Most especially, the writer can manipulate the reader’s sense of time. In yesterday’s essay “Hosting Problems,” I wrote: “This explanation was posted nearly 24 hours after the incident.” Substituting “one day,” “a day,” or “1 day” for “24 hours” would have made the delay seem shorter, or, in any case, less significant. Choices are limited, however; writing “84,400 seconds” would have seemed both unnatural and transparently manipulative. A slightly different example is the use of “quarter century” in lieu of “25 years.” The period referred to in the former wording seems longer than that of the latter.

What got me thinking about descriptions of time is a story I read yesterday on the Catholic Online Web site. “Forward in Faith Anglicans in Australia Unanimously Vote to Become Catholic” is about a group of Anglo-Catholics in Australia who are planning to take up the Pope’s recent offer to become Roman Catholic while retaining limited Anglican traditions. The story contained this paragraph:
The Bishop [David Robarts] explained that the Anglican Church was moving away from orthodox Christian belief and practice and leaving them behind: “In Australia we have tried for a quarter of a decade to get some form of episcopal oversight but we have failed… We’re not really wanted any more, our conscience is not being respected.”
Bishop Robarts is trying very hard to elicit sympathy for his long struggle against his Anglican oppressors. But a quarter of a decade? Really? Two-and-a-half years? Considering the speed at which churches change, that is the blink of an eye, which leads me to think that the bishop may be lacking impulse control. Robarts has employed a rhetorical trick here that simply does not work. “Decade,” at least in some contexts, has a bit of gravitas; “quarter of a decade” seems merely petulant. Perhaps Robarts would have preferred saying that “we have tried for 77,067,750 seconds.” Ah, the saints are long-suffering.


  1. My cousin, who has been married for over a quarter of a century, told me one of the secrets to a long marriage.

    If you don't give it ten years, you haven't really tried to work it out.

  2. Maybe around 1980 I heard the story that someone asked a member of the Curia whether the Roman Catholic Church might want to follow the example of Anglican in the matter of the ordination of women. His answer: "We'll watch carefully for a century or two and see how it works for them."


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