From timetable to time horizon

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Last year I commented on

the tendency of representatives of the U.S. government (GWB especially) and supporters of the government's current policies to refer to timetables for leaving Iraq as artificial timetables or arbitrary timetables, collocations that are presumably to be understood as involving appositive rather than intersective modification.

That is, for these speakers, artificial timetable means 'timetable, which is arbitrary' (all timetables are arbitrary) rather than 'timetable which/that is arbitrary' (only some timetables are arbitrary, and the reference is just to these).

George W. Bush, while continuing to vigorously reject "arbitrary timetables", has now shifted his language a bit to adjust to new realities. As Steven Lee Myers wrote in the lead story in the New York Times yesterday,

HOUSTON — President Bush agreed to "a general time horizon" for withdrawing American troops in Iraq, the White House announced Friday, in a concession that reflected both progress in stabilizing Iraq and and the depth of political opposition to an open-ended military presence in Iraq and at home.

(I would have recast that last bit as "the depth of political opposition, in Iraq and at home, to an open-ended military presence", so as to avoid a parsing in which "in Iraq and at home" modifies "an open-ended military presence", a parsing that is encouraged by how easy it is to take "an open-ended military presence in Iraq" as a constituent.)

… The White House offered no specifics about how far off any "time horizon" would be, with officials saying details remained to be negotiated. Any dates cited in an agreement would be cast as goals for handing responsibility to Iraqis, and not specifically for reducing American troops, said a White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe.

"Time horizon" wouldn't have fit into the headline, so the head-writer went for the shorter "timeline" instead:


In any case, "timetable" (unmodified) is to be avoided, especially since Barack Obama has been calling for a strict phased timetable for withdrawal. The Obama camp's response to the "time horizon" announcement:

A spokesman for Mr. Obama, Bill Burton, called the announcement "a step in the right direction," but derided what he called the vagueness of the White House commitment.

Of course it's vague. That's the point.



  1. Joe said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

    Seems like another case of the Humpty Dumpty effect* in politics, where they're doing exactly what they once denounced because it's popular, but using different words so that they can deny that they're doing what they said was wrong.

    * 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

  2. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    Time horizon, by the way has an established usage in the world of finance: "the length of time an investor is willing or able to keep hold of an investment." That doesn't translate terribly well into a military context, however.

  3. ajay said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 6:59 am


    Honestly. Is it too much to ask our leaders to wear appropriate clothing while addressing the nation?

  4. Dan Milton said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 10:13 am

    Dan Eggan's take in today's Washington Post:
    "In its most literal sense, of course, the horizon is the line where the sky meets the earth — and thus can never be reached. That does not appear to be what the White House, or the Iraqis, have in mind. "

  5. Jason Orendorff said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    The closest match in my brain is event horizon, the border around a black hole, which also can't be reached, if I understand correctly.

    I think attributing the choice of words in the Times headline to space is rather quaint. It seems more likely to me that the headline writer was intentionally denying the Bush administration the privilege of framing events in words they just made up.

  6. James Wimberley said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    Ajay: Bush donned the shift after the workout of vigorously (AZ) rejecting timetables, not to mention splitting infinitives like Charles Bronson in The Magnificent Seven. You're lucky he wasn't in a towel.

  7. Joe said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    No, the event horizon of a black hole most certainly *can* be reached (at least from the perspective of the one reaching it, assuming the black hole is large enough that tidal forces don't rip them apart beforehand).

    What you're thinking of is the perspective of someone outside the black hole, who never sees them fall in, because any light that bounces off them or is emitted by them takes longer and longer to escape.

    In any event, politics contributes a lot of interesting usage. After all, people need clever ways not to mean what they say, or to say what they need to without admitting anything. All of which is destroyed when what they said gets paraphrased for the news, whether it's then clarified or distorted.

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