Place and Time

My friend and fellow blogger Christina brought to my attention the other day an odd aspect of English and French pronouns. The words when and where are usually reserved for temporal and spatial references, respectively, but in French, the two ideas can be conflated with the pronoun , which is usually first translated as “where”. Here are her examples:

1) Est-ce que tu te souviens de l’été  nous avons visité la plage? Do you remember the summer when we visited the beach?

2) Est-ce que tu te souviens de la plage où nous nagions? = Do you remember the beach where we used to swim?

What I found interesting about this was that the English where does, in fact, stand in for temporal reference sometimes. Not long after I read Christina’s blog post, I was editing my cousin’s application essays and found these two examples, one after the other:

3) College was a time where I began to enhance my personal development… It was also a time where I became more aware of how mental health and personal issues could greatly impact one’s well-being within the campus community.

There are a couple of things to unpack about sentence 3 — that is, several reasons that might explain what is going on behind the seemingly-nontraditional usage of where. The first reason that comes to mind is that the deictic function of where has been confused by the word college. College is both a time (four years of undergraduate education) and a place (classrooms, offices, and dormitories). It’s perfectly normal to say, “During college, I sang in an a cappella group.” or, “I go to college on the East Coast.” In each case, context tells the listener if college is being used to denote time or place. But because of the potential for ambiguity, I think our mind’s internal processes that select pronouns for use can mix up signals and give us where when we meant when.

A second possible explanation has to do with metaphor and time as a “visible” human construct. Take a minute to think about your week so far. Try to see it in your mind’s eye. What did you do yesterday, and the day before that? Chances are you just pictured a calendar, with the days of the week plotted on it in sequence. You see, time for humans is almost always visualized, and linearly so.  Days and events are points on the timeline; durations are segments. Because of this spatial dimension of time, the logical leap from time as a “when” to time as a “where” is not difficult at all.

A quick search of the word string “a time where” in the New York Times archive gave me thousands of results, many of them false positives (e.g., “In addition to pushing for jail time where appropriate, the society has…”). But among the results were also plenty of idiomatic phrases that cohere with the timeline explanation, such as “a point in time where…” or “a gap in time where…”

Additionally, I noticed that nearly all of the actual instances of “a time where” in which time — without any qualifiers — was being used in the strictly locative sense were in quotations. That is, people use “a time where” in casual settings and in interviews quite a bit, and even if the NYT editors are marking it out of the prose portions of these articles, the construction in question is alive and well in everyday speech.

And perhaps in correlation to this, use of “a time where” in written texts has increased dramatically in the past twenty years. My informal source of choice when it comes to lexical frequency is the Google Ngram Viewer, which keeps statistics on all the words used in all of the books that are scanned and stored on Google Books. From the chart below, it’s clear that “a time where” is seeing more frequent use nowadays. Of course, when compared to “a time when,” the rise of the temporal where (or is it the locative time?) is reduced to a flat line at 0%, as if it doesn’t even exist in English. Remember, however: it’s the change that I’m interested in, not the absolute frequency.

Google Ngram chart showing the relative rise of "a time where".

Google Ngram chart showing the relative rise of “a time where”.

So where does that leave us? Language changes constantly, and even though closed-class words (e.g., prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns, like where and when) tend to change more slowly than open-class words (e.g., verbs, nouns, and adjectives, new ones of which are created every day), it is possible that we are seeing the emergence of a new spatial meaning of the location pronoun where. Alternatively, the phrase “a time where” could just be a weird idiomatic quirk in some idiolects that old-fashioned grammar teachers will try in vain to snuff out.

Do you use the temporal where or otherwise refer to time spatially? Does it strike you as an odd artifact of English (and French), or does this happen in other languages, too?


Word of the Day: deixis (pronounced [ˈdaɪksɨs]), meaning reference, or indication of something. Grammatically and linguistically, this word is used most often in the context of pronouns or other words whose real-world meaning is not fixed, but changes with context. If you post an article on Facebook with the single-word caption “THIS”, what exactly is the deixis of this? If I write a sentence that uses the word you, what is the deictic function of you? Does you always refer to you? Hm… what riveting quasi-philosophical semantic quandaries to ponder…


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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