This morning's NY Times science section is devoted to memorializing Charles Darwin, and the title of one of the featured articles is: "He was prescient in 1859, and is still ahead of his time." My first reaction to this headline was an unreflecting interpretation of it as simply meaning, 'Darwin was ahead of his time and his ideas are still on the cutting edge.'
But my second reaction was quite conscious: Wait a minute; this is an error — perhaps akin to those frequently noted confusions like "falling between the cracks" or "No brain damage is too minor to be ignored." (If indeed they are properly considered confusions, see below.)
It would have been okay to have said "still ahead of the times," where "the times" refers, as intended, to the present time, and "still" serves to relate the present time to Darwin's time. But read closely, either "still ahead of his time" is true simply because he was ahead of his time when alive, and so the predication would be satisfied in any situation in which the subject was ahead of his time when alive and so is utterly uninformative — or it would mean nothing at all. But my third thought was provoked by the voice of the tiny angel of common sense that sits on the shoulder of every academic (or should), who whispered, "Whoa, even if this is an error in some persnickety sense, it shouldn't be cavalierly dismissed as such because the expression works in communicating its author's intention and so how it manages to do this while breaking the normal rules should be a matter of interest."
I've thought of two ways to begin to tame this small but toothy linguistic beast. They are no more than beginnings. Doubtless other readers can think of more, or can improve my fumblings.
First analysis: "Still" in a context like this means something like 'up until now'. We've called the headline an error because saying that Darwin's having been ahead of his time is still TRUE is uninformative, since there's no earthly reason to suppose it isn't still true. ("Yes, George Washington is still dead." [Please don't ask me again.]) But if we make the relatively small jump from TRUE to RELEVANT (and allow by common metonymy, or even the conventional meaning of the idiom "ahead of his/her time", "his" to be read as 'his ideas'), we get that Darwin was ahead of his time in 1859 and his ideas are still relevant now. So that's one way to tame the beast. Maybe we have no thoretical warrant to change TRUE to RELEVANT whenever it just happens to suit our purposes, but — what can I say? — that's life, or maybe journalism.
Second analysis: This one seems to require a twist, maybe a wrenching, of what literary critics call "free indirect style" ("style indirect libre", in the original French), in which indirect reference to speech or thought (vs. direct quotation) can ignore the normal shifting of time, as in, "What was she going to do now?" (We note that the word "now" can't normally refer to a time in the past.) On this analysis we grant ourselves license to speak of Darwin and his work as existing in the present time, even though we're not indirectly quoting anybody, and can then assert the work to be on the cutting edge of this time, while employing the word "still" to relate it to its original time. Those more familiar than I am with the mixing or blending of Gilles Fauconnier's mental spaces can probably straighten me out on this, perhaps even dispensing entirely with the reference to free indirect style.
I'm not proud of either of these 'analyses' and hope LL readers can do better, since the small problem posed by the headline seems to me an interesting one.