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While Meant

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In the mean time, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed.) digs deeper into meantime-meanwhile distinctions than Garner has glanced at for us. In at least one instance, seeming to disagree with Garner.

Since the 19th century, Fowler tells us that the single word is used for “in the meantime” in that adverbial phrase, as well as for the adversative and concessive sense. Fowler says the solo “meantime” has been as common as “meanwhile” from the 16th century through the 19th, but observes “meanwhile” to now be the more common of the two. Then in allowing that a solo “meantime” does continue to see wide usage, Fowler gives two examples from the 1970s, both of which violate Garner’s rule against beginning a sentence with a solo “meantime.”

Turning to “meanwhile,” Fowler states that although considered interchangeable “to some extent” (but like Garner’s “essentially,” not distinctly laying out the extent, other than by the allusions given by various given senses and examples), the phrase “in the meantime” remains more usual than “in the meanwhile.” But that for the solo word in place of the phrase, “meanwhile” is more usual than “meantime.” Why, one wonders, if the two are actually considered essentially to be saying the same thing, to some extent? Surely, no Grand Grammar God has dictated this, that “in the meantime” should be more usual as a phrase, but that “meanwhile” would be more usual when said solo. And if the masses of writers and readers have gradually made these choices, what mob mentality guided them? And if one was to be more usual written one way, why not go with that same way written the other way? Curious. Could it be that even when felt to be interchangeable, there remains some instinctive distinction in meaning? And if so, that usage is picking up on that distinction? I’m almost suspecting so, or at least that maybe there might be some sloshing around of usage evolution originating in one distinct definition of “mean [time/while]” that has been inherited by another of those distinct definitions, sometimes with somewhat less than precise implications (hence, that one “essentially” and this other “to some extent”).

Fowler then gives us a bonus that we didn’t see in Garner’s brief note, nor seemed present in OED, “a loose resumptive use of meanwhile . . . common in journalistic use, in TV commentaries, etc.” Fowler calls this the equivalent of phrases like “while we are on the subject or and another thing,” with the New Statesman referring to such usage as a “disgraceful non sequitur” that journalists are trying to “get away with.” Fowler blames this usage mutant on Hollywood for its 1930s silent movies giving us the memorable phrase, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .” Ah, except even Fowler observes that this caption was often “used to introduce a subsidiary plot.” As in, one subplot transpiring concurrently with the main plot? As in, during the same time, not beforehand or afterward, not leading to or as a consequence of? And as in, although likely to have a bearing on things before “The End,” at the moment not a direct restriction on or substantive element of the main plot (as in the instance of Garner’s third qualification being more a restriction on his second qualification, rather than a truely concurrent subplot). Hmmmmm . . . I’m not so certain I would be inclined to disparage this particular distinction for “meanwhile” useage, as to me it seems to give some voice to the original sense of “mean” meant.

//] - so to speak


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Written by macheide

16 April 2015 at 5:23 pm

Posted in so to speak

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