These economic times

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Reader HS asks about

…the extremely common construction 'these difficult economic times,' which strikes me as an awkwardly ordered way of saying 'these times of economic difficulty.' I wonder what is so attractive about something so awkward. It gets nearly 10 million Google hits.

A COCA search for / these [jj] [jj] times / turns up 20 instances of these tough economic times, 11 of these difficult economic times, six of these hard economic times, four each of these uncertain, rough, and dire economic times, two each of these lean, perilous, bad, tight, turbulent and troubled economic times, and one each of these parlous, miserable, sour, poor, uncertain, harsh, and challenging economic times.

It's not all bad — there are three instances of these good economic times, and one instance each of bullish and remarkable. Furthermore, these are 18 instances of just plain "these economic times", though most of these turn out to be bad times when you look into it.

HS is not the only one to complain about this construction. Kurt Soller, "Make It Stop: 'In These Tough Economic Times'", Newsweek 6/13/2009:

Are we in a recession? A depression? Experts may differ, but here's something we can all agree on: in these tough economic times, the last thing we want to hear, ever again, is the phrase "in these tough economic times." Sadly, the mainstream media—and if you consult Google, yes, NEWSWEEK is probably guilty, too—can't get enough of it. Actually, we did Google it, and this year alone, the nation's 50 biggest newspapers have used the phrase more than 2,500 times. That's a fivefold jump over the same period in 2008.

A Google News Archive search for "these difficult|tough|hard economic times" verifies that the volume of usage tracks the business cycle:

I'm not sure why HS finds the phrase these difficult economic times so awkward.  It's true that if you try to construe it on the model of these hot dry times or these cold hard times, things don't turn out well. But adjectival modification requires some flexibility no matter how you approach it — the role of economic in these times of economic difficulty is different from that of (say) great in these times of great difficulty.

Nor am I entirely clear on what triggered Kurt Soller's belief that "in these tough economic times" is perniciously overused. I'm not sure how he searched "the nation's 50 biggest newspapers" — this is either a feature of Google search that I don't know about, or else Soller is using "Google" as a generic term for e.g. Lexis/Nexis search. A general Google News Archive search, as shown above, doesn't support the view that 2009 saw a "five-fold jump" over 2008.  The NYT index gives 11 hits for "in these tough economic times" between 1/1/2008 and 1/1/2009, compared to 19 hits between 1/1/2009 and 1/1/2010. This is an increase, but again it's way short of five-fold.  And in any case, the total is tiny compared to (say) "financial crisis" with 1,921 hits, which I'll bet it would never occur to Soller to complain about.

So overall, I'm inclined to score Soller's reaction as another win for the Frequency Illusion.

Anyhow, it's clear that if you use the phrase "in these NegativeAdjective economic times", HS and Kurt Soller — probably among many others — are going to seethe, perhaps not silently. So consider yourself warned.


  1. John Cowan said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    Perhaps "these economically difficult times" would make him happier, as it clarifies what modifies what. However, it suffers from the ambiguity of economically, which is the adverb for both economic and economical.

  2. Jac said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    I don't find 'in whatever economic times' awkward, but what does 'in these economic times' mean?

    [(myl) I wondered the same thing, at first, but the web examples are clear enough in context, e.g.

    But in these economic times more than ever, money talks, and it's telling the NFL that fantasy football is here to stay, for better or worse.
    What that probably means is Buffalo has to upgrade its stadium or build a new one, and that's never a palatable alternative in these economic times.
    In these economic times, while many series are shrinking, the IndyCar Series is actually getting bigger.
    Which in these economic times is no small feat for a locally owned, single-site, simple neighborhood grill, particularly one that opened in spring 2009.
    In these economic times, it might seem strange that someone would throw away a job.

    It might help if you think of "EconomicTimes" as a single compound word — but basically this is no more puzzling than things like "in his mental state" or "given her legal status" — like state or status, times may be too abstract by itself, and economic makes it clear what aspect of the current time period is relevant.]

  3. Mark P said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    We all have to be careful in these peevish language times.

  4. Mr Punch said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Surely the problem (if there is one) is "times." Are there any similar objections to, say, "in this difficult economic climate"?

    [(myl) We should ask HS for a judgment. From where I sit, if "in these difficult economic times" is awkward, so is "in this difficult economic climate". This opinion is not worth much, however, since they both seem fine to me.]

  5. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    I'm not sure why HS finds the phrase these difficult economic times so awkward. It's true that if you try to construe it on the model of these hot dry times or these cold hard times, things don't turn out well.

    But they do turn out well (that is, seem acceptable to enough people to be used in print) with other adjectives. "these * political times" yields countless ghits, with intervening adjectives including "troubling", "turbulent" and "uncertain". "these * legal times" is far less frequent, but also attested. "financial", "fiscal" and "budgetary" also crop up, as does (puzzlingly) "religious".

    [(myl) Sorry for apparently being unclear. What I meant was that "hot dry times" are times that are hot and dry, whereas "difficult economic times" are not times that are difficult and economic. (And similarly with your examples…)]

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    To me, "these bad economic times" translates as "these economically bad times," in exactly the same way as "in the same exact way" translates as "in exactly the same way".

  7. bork said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    BikeSnobNYC has been using the acronym 'ITTET' since March 2009:

  8. language hat said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    This is just peevery in its endless quest for fresh peeve-fodder.

    [(myl) No doubt. But there's scope for scientific study of such foraging behavior… We might hope to predict our linguistic crotchets and irks, without pretending that they correspond to logical necessity, divine law, or an established social contract. And who knows, it might even to possible to give an empirically well-founded definition of "awkward". ]

  9. Karen said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    English has always accommodated both kinds of adjective phrases – where both modify the noun (where a comma or "and" can come between them) and those where one is modifying the other – to be very prosaic, a deep blue shirt is not a deep shirt that is blue the way an old blue shirt is an old one…

    [(myl) True about "deep blue shirt", but not really relevant — a deep blue shirt is deep blue, but tough economic times are not tough economic. On the contrary, the structure is presumably [tough [economic times]], that is, economic-times that are tough.]

    In short, there's no real reason to object to it.

  10. hs said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    I am not seething, peeved or made unhappy by the use of the phrase.Nor do I struggle with finding its meaning.

    "This X economic climate" is different than "these X economic times" for a few reasons.

    As jac points out, "economic times" by itself doesn't have a readily apparent meaning, though "economic climate" does, at least to me.

    As Mark points out, "economic times" is used as a compound word.

    The phrase "these X times," like "in this day and age" and "nowadays," seems to me to signal a perception that the speaker believes that the hearers share the speaker's sentimental evaluation of the quality of the current situation.

    From the contexts in which I hear the phrase, that "these difficult economic times" carries the speakers' implications of shared sentiment. "Economic climate" is drier.

    [(myl) Sorry, "seethe" was quite unfair, given your forthright expression of your feelings about the phrase. Would it be reasonable to warn would-be users of such phrases that you're likely to complain, or at least to think less of them?]

  11. Joe said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    Can't check COCA at the moment, but is there any chance that "these difficult economic times" is a blend of "hard times" (with "economically" as possible modifier) and "these times of economic difficulty?" (not that I have a problem with the construction, just curious)

  12. hs said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    I don't have feelings about the phrase, but only said it was "awkwardly ordered." How is that complaining or expressing feelings, rather than merely offering an opinion about syntax?

    My opinion of those who say "in these difficult economic times" would be based on some other factors, such as the rest of the sentence in which the phrase appeared and my various biases.

    [(myl) Apologies for unfairly lumping you with Kurt Soller, then.]

  13. groki said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    re Coby Lubliner's "the exact same way" = "exactly the same way":

    for me, the precise parallel would be "? the exactly same way," which is suspect: doable, but on the edge.

    it seems the "the" in "the same" is part of the adjective for sameness somehow, so the adverb has to go in front of both.

  14. blahedo said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    Although it doesn't sound weird to me, I definitely agree that it's not quite the same as "economic climate" or for that matter "economic difficulty": there are many types of climate and many types of difficulty, and these phrases narrow down *which ones* are under discussion. However, in the phrase "economic times" my sense is that there is only one kind of "times"—that is, the word refers to an entire era—but that we are using the word "economic" to specify *what aspect* thereof is being discussed.

    Actually, I have a hypothesis. In "economic difficulty" et al, "economic" is functioning as an adjective, while in "economic times" it functions as a noun. (I guess this is just a refinement of the "treat it as a compound noun" suggestion.) Consider:

    These difficulties are economic. (or, "…economic in nature.")
    These difficulties are entirely economic.
    These great difficulties are economic.
    ?The climate to which we refer is economic.
    The climate to which we refer is the economic one.
    The climate we mean is exclusively economic.


    *These times are economic.
    *These hard times are economic.
    *…these extremely economic times…

    I share @hs's sense that there's something different going on there, but (as usual) there's an explanation. :)

  15. groki said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    duh! reversed the first quote, which confuses things quite a bit. the above comment from me should have begun:

    re Coby Lubliner's "the same exact way" = "exactly the same way"

  16. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    @blahedo: I think it's going a bit far to say that "economic" actually "functions as a noun", but this old entry of Dr. Zwicky's makes the point that "pseudo-adjectives (though clearly, from their morphological forms, adjectives) are awfully noun-y". (I'm not sure if "economic" here is exactly what that entry would call a "pseudo-adjective", but it's part of the larger group of non-predicating modifiers.)

  17. Richard said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    Substitute "era" for "times".

    Does "this difficult economic era" sound awkward? Why would you say "this economic era of difficulty" sounds better? To me, it's like quibbling between "blue corduroy shirt" and "corduroy shirt of blue".

    I'm perfectly fine with "these hard economic times", as you can tell.

    PS Hey Blaheta. Another '93'er here.

  18. Will said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    @groki: I think "the exactly same way" is valid, but only if you really want to put emphasis on the identity and probably contrasting to something less identical. i.e. not just "the same way" but "the exactly same way".

    Without a specific reason to phrase things that way, the construction definitional sounds a lot worse than "exactly the same way". But I do think there is parallel here with "economic times", just maybe not an exact parallel.

    "Same way" does sort of feel like partly an adjectival phrase and partly a compound noun. So maybe there is a continuum between these extremes. In terms of the level of acting-like-a-compound-noun:

    "Economic times" > "Same way" > "Blue shirt"

  19. Will said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    definitional = definitely

    typo + lazy spell check replacement + no proofreading until after posting

  20. Brian said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    However, in the phrase "economic times" my sense is that there is only one kind of "times"—that is, the word refers to an entire era—but that we are using the word "economic" to specify *what aspect* thereof is being discussed.

    I'd have to disagree. To my ears, "economic" actually specifies which of the many possible "times" we're talking about — in this case, a time period that starts around 2008. If the phrase had been "in these tough authoritarian times", I would think the speaker would be referring to a period of increased governmental authority (which might start in 2001, depending on the speaker and the context).

    "These unstable geologic times" might refer to a time period spanning millennia.

  21. Mark F. said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    Whoa. "The exactly same way" gets a big * in my idiolect.

    blahedo — I wouldn't be so sure that there is only one kind of "times." I would say that "these political times" are a different thing than "these economic times," and that "times" in this sense is a fairly close synonym of "climate" (used in the corresponding sense).

    As for "economic" being a noun, I really doubt it. Then "political" in "these political times" has to be a noun too, for instance.

  22. Qov said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    "In these economic times" doesn't come off as awkward to me at all. You don't need the negative adjective. Heck, you don't even need the "economic." With any money context at all "in these times" or "these days" means the same thing.

    I suspect there's an originator or popularizer of the phrase that make it the way it is said with no one minding. Maybe a throne speech/state of the union or some media outlet. Like the way "the tragic events of September 11th" achieved instant ubiquity before it got boiled down to "nine-eleven."

  23. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    @Jac & myl

    "It might help if you think of "EconomicTimes" as a single compound word — but basically this is no more puzzling than things like "in his mental state" or "given her legal status" — like state or status, times may be too abstract by itself, and economic makes it clear what aspect of the current time period is relevant."

    Is it just me or is "economic times" just a slightly wordier way to write "economy"? Maybe it's in fact the misguided "Omit Needless Words" imperative at play again?

  24. dirk alan said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    has any body looked into when sweet economic times is ever mentioned ? or is it ignored or taken for granted.

  25. Janice Byer said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

    Qov is right. In context, "these times" ought to be sufficient, that is, if the speaker's intent is to clarify which era. The unnecessary elaboration to "economic times" and more so "tough economic times" strikes me as rhetorically motivated. Rhetorical speech, in my observation, scores emotionally without following rules that literal statements seem to depend on.

  26. Xmun said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    I am reminded of a seventeenth-century translation of Boethius by Sir Richard Fanshawe:

    "I, who in flowry youth wrote flowry Rymes,
    now sad, write sad ones, like the Tymes."

    There is nothing in the Latin, but much in this Cavalier poet's circumstances during the Interregnum, to warrant those last three words.

  27. Troy S. said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    This reminds me of a novelty calendar I saw back in 1999 that had humorous quotations for each day of the year, one of which read something like:
    "As the millennium approaches, you can expect more and more articles to begin with the phrase 'as the millennium approaches.'"

  28. wren ng thornton said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    Jac: but what does 'in these economic times' mean?

    To me, that sounds like a form of elision. That is, I wouldn't accept it as a valid construction were not for "in these JJ economic times", and psychologically it definitely feels like there's a hole or trace there which must be filled in from context.

    Which is curious, since ITjET doesn't strike me as unusual. Perhaps there's something about having the adjective there that licenses this kind of compound? I have the same elision reading for "in these fiscal times", "in these financial times", etc. Also for "in these religious times" when given this reading; when taken with the reading that these times are ones of abnormally high religious activity, as opposed to focusing on the religious aspects of the (otherwise normal) times, then it's fine and doesn't elicit the feeling of there being a gap. So there's something unique about this particular reading of 'nouny adjectives' selecting or focusing a particular aspect of the "times". Very different from "in their mental state" or "given their legal status", where the mentality and legality are simply modifying rather than selecting the status in question (given their purple limbs, in their red convertible,…)

  29. Gordon said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

    'These times of economic difficulty' sounds more regally flowing but 'these difficult economic times' condenses the point and helps listeners to follow along.

  30. blahedo said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    @Mark F. "As for "economic" being a noun, I really doubt it. Then "political" in "these political times" has to be a noun too, for instance."

    Maybe, but "political times" looks like a different construct. If "economic" in "economic times" is an adjective, why can't it be modified by an adverb of degree? Why can't it be used in a predicate adjective construction? I do agree that "political" there is an adjective, because I can say "in these highly political times" or "These times are highly political", in both cases referring to the fact that our culture is highly politicized at this time. But I still can't say "in these highly economic times" (or if I do, it means something a little different) or "these times are highly economic." It's not the same construct.

    @Richard: Huh, wild. Drop me an email (because I don't know which Richard you are or how to contact you!)

  31. Rodger C said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    This discussion keeps making me recall the Firesign Theatre:

    But, Dear Friends in these days of modern time,
    when you can’t tell the AC’s from the DC’s,
    well aren’t we all yearning for someone who can turn on a little stopping power?
    Dear Friends, I mean a smokey glass
    Don’t you think I mean a lightning rod with which to chase these spooks away?
    Don’t you know I mean our own Pastor Rod Flash!

  32. Richard said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    I think of "economic times" as just one word, because English doesn't have a single noun that conveys the meaning "economic times" does. Think of "economic times" as similiar to "baseball era". If people talk about "the current homer-friendly baseball era", no one would think the current era is more basebally. On the other hand, you may need to use the term "baseball era" instead of "era", because if you said "he has a distaste for our current high-scoring era", by itself, you don't know what sport is being referred to (or even if the speaker is referring to sport instead of sex).

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