"last October"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sat Dec 6 19:20:07 UTC 2008

from a NYT editorial, "Rescue the Census", of 4 December:

None of those senior managers have ever led a nationwide census, and
two of them -- the deputy and the decennial director -- assumed their
posts last October.


ah, the old problem with "last X" (and "next X").  it's well-known
that there is variation in the way people use and interpret these
calendrical expressions.  in this particular case, in something
written in early December, does "last October" refer to the most
recent October (October 2008) or to the October of the preceding
calendar year (October 2007)?  (the facts about usages are complex,
and depend in part on the time elapsed between now and the time
referred to.)

i'm not encouraging people to report on the way they use "last" (vs.
"this") in various situations; i know from experience that this will
lead to some people disagreeing heatedly with one another while others
become unsure of what they'd say.

in this particular case, the intention of the writer could have been
made clear by altering the wording ("assumed their posts in October"
would refer to October 2008, while "assumed their posts in October
2007" or "in October of last year" would convey the other meaning).
but of course to re-word, the writer would have had to realize that
there's a problem in interpretation here.

i spent some time trying to figure out just when these people assumed
their current posts at the Census Bureau -- a frustrating exercise.
there is a staff list on the bureau's site, but it's from 11 August of
this year (and anyway it doesn't say when people were appointed to
their posts).  back in August, however, the bureau had an *acting*
deputy director (Thomas Mesenbourg), so it's likely that the current
deputy director was indeed appointed in October of this year.


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