We’ve seen a spate of errors recently in the use of time-related modifiers such as former, current, presently, last and past. So we figured it’s about time we talked about time.
The problem: Constructions that use a past-tense verb with former are redundant, because former means in the past. We often see this error in employee biographies.
Incorrect: Stephanie Thomas, the new CFO, was a former controller and bookkeeper for XYZ Company.
Correct: Stephanie Thomas, the new CFO, is a former controller and bookkeeper for XYZ Company. OR: Before joining the firm as CFO, Stephanie Thomas was a bookkeeper and then controller of XYZ Company.
Exception: The use of former with a past-tense verb works when the verb follows rather than precedes the modifier: Former “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson redefined late-night television.
The problem: For the same reason former is superfluous with a past-tense verb, current is redundant with a present-tense verb — because the present tense means it’s happening right now (i.e., currently).
Incorrect: Barack Obama is currently president of the United States. The current anesthesia guidelines call for conscious sedation.
Remove currently and current from the sentences above and the meaning of each sentence doesn’t change:
Correct: Barack Obama is president of the United States. The anesthesia guidelines call for conscious sedation.
Exception: As with former, current works with a present-tense verb when the verb follows the modifier: The old rule was onerous; the current rule is more forgiving.
The problem: Presently is widely used to mean “at the present time,” although language purists insist that its early meaning of “without undue delay” is the only correct usage. I’m all for the evolution of language, but in this case I find myself in the purists’ camp — largely because using presently in the first sense gives it the same meaning as currently, with its attendant problems as noted above. In other words, more often than not, the use of presently to mean “now” will result in redundancy.
Incorrect: I am presently eating dinner and will return your call when I finish.
Again, remove presently and the sentence makes perfect sense. Not so with the definition of presently that means “soon” or “before long”:
Correct: I’m in a meeting but will answer your question presently.
The problem: Ambiguity can arise when last implies finality but is used as a synonym for latest.
Incorrect: The last train left at 2 p.m.
Does that mean it was the last train for the day, or the one that left most recently? The following options should clear things up:
Correct: The last train for the day left at 2 p.m. [meaning you’re out of luck if you missed it]. OR: The latest train left at 2 p.m. [meaning you lucky dog, another will be along shortly].
The problem: The use of last is redundant with the name of a month or day if you mean the one in the most recent past. The same rule applies to references to months and days in the immediate future.
Incorrect: It rained last Monday. The team will complete the project next June.
Correct: It rained Monday. The team will complete the project in June.
The problem: Use of this word results in redundant phrasing when the nouns that past modifies (e.g., history, experience, record) denote something rooted in the past.
Incorrect: Based on his past history, he can’t be trusted. Stella’s past experience makes her an excellent candidate for the position.
Correct: Based on his history, he can’t be trusted. Stella’s experience makes her an excellent candidate for the position.
Last vs. Past
Last and past can be used interchangeably when they clearly mean the same thing — which is usually the case when the verb takes the reader up to the present moment, as in this example:
The weather has been ridiculously unpredictable the last three months.
The statement clearly refers to the most recently preceding three months, and either last or past works in this instance. But sometimes the time frame is vague:
During the last three months of depositions, the lawyers traveled more than 6,000 miles.
In this case, use past if you mean the recently preceding three months, and use last to mean the final three months of depositions.
Take time to drop us a line in the comments below to let us know about any other time-related conundrums you’ve encountered.