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.