I had a great editor early in my lately comatose journalism career who loved grammar arguments. He played deaf half the time, but he could hear someone whisper “Oxford comma” from across the newsroom. The one that really stoked his ire, however, was “this past,” as in “this past weekend…”
“What the hell does that even mean?” he once raged. “As usual, people think they know what they don’t know.” (I kept a list of his quotes; he was equal parts Mark Twain and Yogi Berra.)
Not only is “this past” grammatically incorrect, he protested, but a waste of words; “last” is a more succinct substitute in most cases. “When, literally, was this past weekend?” he asked. “Ponder that.”
When people say “this past” they mean the most recent day or weekend or whatever time period referenced preceding the one we’re in. But is that what the words really signify?
“This,” according to the dictionary, is most often a pronoun used to identify a person, thing, idea or event that is present, near or just mentioned; or to indicate something that is about to follow.
Thus “this” has an immediacy, sometimes even a future, while “past” is, well, past—it’s lost to time. The words conflict with one another; they practically exist in different dimensions on the space-time continuum (this is how far off course the discourse was prone to veer).
That said, “last” is a loaded word that can imply finality when it’s not meant to. Though these days I feel like every “last weekend” could also be the “last weekend.”
So does this even matter? We have broad liberties with language in this country, and we take equally broad liberties with it. But even in these dumbed-down times in which our own president cannot form a coherent tweet let alone a complete sentence, language is important.
The past few weeks have been filled with stories that hinge on the weight of language, the consequences of words: Harvard rescinding admissions offers over racist social media posts made by applicants; a jury convicting of a woman of involuntary manslaughter after she encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide, ultimately telling him to climb back into the cab of a truck he was filling with the fumes that would kill him; yet another court ruling against President Spite’s almost comically self-undermining “travel ban.”
“Words are blunt instruments,” sings Thom Yorke in Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling into Place.” “Words are sawed-off shotguns.”
Which brings me to last weekend. Or this past weekend.
Spring was down to its final few days, and Wyatt the dog and I were cleared for a Sunday hike. I planned to revisit a favorite trail in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness then follow one of its offshoots that went unexplored by Wyatt and me on our previous outing. The trailhead, alas, was overflowing by dawn, the area a victim of its word-of-mouth as solitudinous. But just a few miles down the road, an anonymous runoff stream cuts a rambling and little-traveled path deep into the region’s volcanic remnants.
When we last followed the creek, the whole crew was along. That was just a few years past.
As we set off toward the sound of rushing water, I felt sad that Reese and Miles can no longer make such treks. But Wyatt didn’t seem to share my melancholy. He bounded ahead, and I envied his ability to embrace the “this.”