The Grammarphobia Blog

Forward thinking

Q: I saw this question on Boing Boing: “Let’s say a meeting, originally scheduled for Wednesday, has been moved forward two days. What is the new day of the meeting?” It seems that people who say “Friday” are angrier than people who say “Monday.” I’m a good-natured “Monday” person, but I wonder if there’s a linguistic convention for this. Which is most correct?

A: The question here is whether moving an event “forward” means it will happen earlier or later. I say earlier (I must be good-natured too), and I’m surprised that some people think otherwise.

As one who has dealt with deadlines all my adult life, I can assure you that moving a deadline “forward” in a newsroom means moving it closer to the present, or earlier. And moving a deadline “back” means the opposite: away from the present, or later.

In both cases, the deadline is of course in the future; it’s moved either “forward” or “back” in terms of its proximity to the present.

Those who disagree probably picture a calendar in their minds. “Forward” to them means to the right: Friday is to the right of Wednesday, or further into the future. Similarly, “back” means to the left.

In my opinion, this is the wrong perspective from which to view future events that are either in the forefront (earlier) or the background (later).

One of the earliest definitions of “forward,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “the first or earliest part of (a period of time, etc.).”

This sense was recorded as far back as the year 900, when forewearde neaht (“forward night” in Old English) meant early evening.

As for modern usage, you have to look far and wide to find a dictionary that’s specific about what “forward” means in terms of time.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has this: “At or to a different time; earlier or later: moved the appointment forward, from Friday to Thursday.” In the example, the word means “earlier,” but the definition (“earlier or later”) is noncommittal.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) is refreshingly unambiguous. Among its definitions of the adverb “forward” is this one: “to an earlier time or date (to move a meeting forward).” It gets my vote. I think this is how the vast majority of people use the word.

I recently wrote an item on my blog about a similar issue: the use of the word “prepone.” It means to move an event ahead in time – that is, the opposite of “postpone.”

If “prepone” catches on, that would solve the problem for people who can’t agree among themselves what moving a meeting “forward” actually means.

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