stand against the abuse of ‘during’

I have a dislike of repeat offenders. They are the insidious mistakes that creep in and infect people who write, say, reports. It spreads to different writers and their little encampments  of language terror hide all over a range of documents. The worst is when you start asking yourself if they’re right after all.

So what invoked my ire today? The shameless abuse of a harmless little word: ‘during’.

According to the OED online ‘during’ is a preposition with the following meanings:

  • throughout the course or duration of (a period of time): the restaurant is open during the day; the period during which he grew to adulthood
  • at a particular point in the course of: the stabbing took place during a row at a party

The problem comes in when the second usage is applied incorrectly. In the example above, ‘during’ is used for an event that takes place at some point between the beginning and end of a specific period (a fight at a party). This can be problematic if you’re trying to convey facts or if you choose to use ‘during’ for a year or a month.

‘The accident occurred during December.’

Possible meanings:

  • For the whole of the December, an accident was happening (i.e. it was a very slow accident).
  • At some unknown point in December, an accident happened.

I don’t like this since it’s impossible (trust me) to guess how your reader will interpret what you have written if more than one meaning is possible. Especially if it is an official document.

The  meaning can be made clear by simply using ‘in’. ‘The accident occurred in December’ immediately guides the reader to the correct interpretation and eliminated double meanings. I always use ‘in’ for months and years and I’ve seen this in style guides as well.

‘He participated in hockey during school.’

Possible meanings:

  • Instead of going to school, he played hockey.
  • At some point while he was at school, he played a game of hockey.
  • At school he never did anything except play hockey – no sleeping, no eating, no writing exams.

Or simply: ‘He participated in hockey at school’. Other options are possible.

Have you encountered similar bloopers ‘during’ reading and/or editing?

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