The Grammarphobia Blog

Why isn’t it light after dark?

Q: Why do we say “after dark” when what we really mean is “after light” – that is, the darkness that follows the light?

A: The full meaning of “after dark” is “after dark comes” or “after darkness falls.” It doesn’t mean “after dark is over with.”

The Oxford English Dictionary includes “nightfall” among its definitions of the noun “dark.”

So “after dark” could be interpreted as meaning “after nightfall.” At least that’s clearly what people mean by it. 

The phrase “after dark” appears in dozens of references in the OED. Here are a couple from the 18th century as well as a more recent one:

“Not till after dark” (1718); “One evening after dark” (1771), and “whip-poor-wills calling shortly after dark” (2002).

Here are two 19th-century citations from the novels of Charles Dickens:

“I seldom go out until after dark” (The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840), and “After dark there come some visitors, with shoes of felt” (Dombey and Son, 1848).

We’re especially fond of this one, from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe (circa 1882): “I heard the minx remark, / She’d meet him after dark, / Inside St. James’s Park, / And give him one!”

Many of the references are spooky, as you might imagine: “It was long after dark” (1832); “never stirring abroad till after dark” (1854); “they call on their victims after dark” (1966); “After dark nothing would induce them to pass the mangrove-swamps” (1885).

Also, “afraid to go out after dark” (1979); “packs of wolves were reinforced after dark by solitary werewolves” (1988); “Don’t go out there after dark” (1991).

And to conclude on a lighter note, there’s this one from a British newspaper: “from before daybreak until after dark, people use the park for doggies to do whoopsies in” (1986).

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