I don’t have enough time to finish this project!

What time is it?

I’ve been to France four times.

Three times two is six.

Those four sentences are all pretty simple, aren’t they? They’re the kind of sentences you might use in everyday situations without thinking about them. But look more closely at that word they all have in common: time.

If you think about it, you’ll realise that the word is being used very differently in each sentence. The first three examples are nouns, and the fourth a verb, but even the three uses of it as a verb are all quite distinct.

The first case is an abstract noun, referring to the general concept of time as a dimension. The second is more specific, referring to the particular hour and minute of the day. The third is also more specific than the concept of time in general, referring to a particular occasion or instance. And the fourth is a verb, meaning multiplied by, though it more than likely came from the third use of the word (e.g. three added two times is six), so we’ll put that aside for the moment.

It’s not unusual, of course, for English to use the same word in multiple ways. This case is interesting though, as it’s quite common for other languages to use different words for these different meanings.

For example: time in general is temps in French and tempo in Italian, clock time is heure and ora respectively, and time as in an occasion is fois and volta.

And that seems pretty logical to me, because if you think about it, they’re all quite different concepts, aren’t they?

Sure, you can still see why English uses the same word, because they are all still unified by the idea of time. The second and third uses refer to specific points in time. Still though, think about how we conceive of time, and using the same word might seem a bit strange.

We usually imagine time as a stream or river, something that flows in one direction. Or as the flight of an arrow through space. But if we use time to refer to an instant or clock time, we’re effectively taking about the opposite of that loose, ever-moving flow.

But, it works. As native speakers, we never get confused, or find communication limited in any way because we use the word time in these ways. It can be a little difficult for non-native speakers of course, which is why you might often notice people using words like occasion which are similar to ones in their native tongue, or making errors like What hour is it?

Still though, it works, and is a nice example of the efficiency of English: why use three words when you can use one!?

2 thoughts on “Time

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