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Wrong Twice A Day
I just need to let this out
I am in general not a fan of pedantry. I can feel it, of course. Perhaps the reason I dislike it is that it’s a vice I possess in considerable measure, and I’ve taken a very firm line with myself about it. I register misplaced apostrophes and the semi-random grammar of political press releases, but I tend to think of them as the semiotic equivalent of light rain. They’re a part of the world, and of the generative spirals of language as it evolves. I am unmoved by passionate debates around the Oxford Comma (there are situations where, if you use it, you run a reduced risk of being misunderstood; there are situations where it’s just in the way). I’m positively benign about split infinitives: I think they add to the variety of meaning and that the case against them was always weak.
I do occasionally feel a bit sad, as I’ve mentioned, about “beg the question”. That’s a phrase whose meaning as I learned it (essentially, that a statement is logically tautologous, taking its conclusion as a premise) is distinct and significant, but it’s being blown away by current usage. We’ll have to come up with a new version:
I’m sorry, you’ve horse-carted your argument.
I feel like you’re fishing from the plate there.
Anyway, though that’s a shame - and I’ll be honest, it makes me wince a bit every time - it doesn’t actually stop my mouth with horror. You know what does? This:
Lunch will start at 12pm
That is a statement that fundamentally does not convey what it is attempting to convey. If you just say
Lunch will start at 12
it is highly unlikely anyone will rock up at what we shall for the purposes of this discussion call 23:55. Why? Because that is not what lunch is. Lunch is a light meal generally eaten in the middle of the day. There is no fundamental law of the universe that says you couldn’t eat lunch in the middle of the night, but there are two perfectly respectable words for a main meal taken during the latter part of the day: supper and dinner. Of these, supper is pretty clear cut, while dinner interestingly comes from French, dîner, itself from Gallo-Latin desiunare meaning “to break one’s fast”. In other words: supper means supper and dinner can mean supper, lunch or breakfast, or indeed a meal you eat in the middle of the night so long as you haven’t already eaten, but lunch is pretty tied to the sun.
So let’s be a bit generous here (I know, I’m so far into not being generous at this point that it’s hardly a blessing) and say that
Dinner will be at 12pm
is at least a bona fide attempt to convey a relevant bit of additional information. In theory, someone somewhere might be coming off an overnight flight or emerging from a weird alien cocoon and need to know which end of the day everyone is eating. Fine. But am/pm won’t get you there, because they are, respectively ante meridiem and post meridiem: before and after noon. 12 midday is exactly noon. 12 midnight is exactly the division between one day and the next; it is both after and before noon. On the twenty four hour clock, of course, midnight is the moment we go from 23:59 to 00:00. I suppose you might make a case that 12 midnight is twelve hours after noon, in which case 12pm is actually midnight. But of course it’s also twelve hours to noon, which makes it legitimately 12am, too.
Just for fun, there are two additional words here - antemeridian and postmeridian - which convey the same (lack of) information and apparently aren’t am and pm. When you really think about it, the twelve hour clock is the choice of a crazy person and we should all just use the twenty four hour one because, well, that’s how many hours there are. Or we could use an entirely new system of measurement and have ten, or a hundred increments in the day-night cycle. But who has the time?
In the name of love, therefore, I conjure you all: either have lunch at 12:01pm, say “midday” or just ignore the whole thing and let people figure it out.
Don’t get me started on people who leave voicemail messages saying “it’s me, call me back right away, it’s important” when their settings block caller ID.