Author Topic: How the sense of the conjunction “until” differs from that of “when”  (Read 6573 times)

Joe Carillo

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Feedback e-mailed by Kyriacos from Cyprus (December 26, 2011):

I have started reading your articles and I find them an excellent tool to smooth out the rough edges of my English. However, I would like to comment on your article in the link below, since I think you have misunderstood the doctor’s using the conjunction “until.” Your comment that the doctor used the conjunction “until” to mean “up to the time that,” is exactly what the doctor meant. My understanding is that the doctor tried to say that we should keep our guards up until the epidemic subsides.

Please also correct my writing above to help me improve my English!

“When media permits a grammatically flawed official statement to see print”


My reply to Kyriacos:

Thank you for the compliment about my essays that have been posted in the Forum.

In that essay you are referring to, the doctor was quoted by the news story as follows: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. Until the cases are low, let us stay ahead of the epidemic.”

I commented that the conjunction “until” was misused in that statement to mean “up to the time that.” “Until,” which means “up to the time that” or “up to such time as,” denotes the duration of a specific action, as in “The conference continued until past noon,” or the completion of an action leading to or resulting in a certain condition, as in “The woman talked and talked until she lost her voice.” Note that in both these two senses of “until,” two active verbs—“continued” and “talked and talked”—are working in tandem with “until.”

In the doctor’s statement, however, “until” is dysfunctional in “until the cases are low” because (1) this phrase is being used in the sense of the lowness of the bird flu cases as an unchanged prevailing condition, and (2) there’s only the linking verb “is” and no active verb at all in the phrase.” The conjunction that correctly denotes the sense intended by the doctor is “while,” meaning “during the time that” or “in the interim that,” as in “While the cases are low, let us stay ahead of the epidemic.” This means that the doctor is saying that to forestall a bird flu epidemic, foreign-aid organizations should take proactive action against it “while the cases are low,” not “until the cases are low.”

This sense is, of course, different from the meaning that arose when the doctor used “until” instead in the phrase “until the cases are low”—a wrong sense that led to your understanding “that the doctor tried to say that we should keep our guards up until the epidemic subsides.”

As to your English, Kyriacos, I think you are doing very well with its grammar and usage. Notice that I have posted the text of your e-mail practically verbatim, except for the comma that I inserted after the phrase “comment on your article” in the second sentence of your note.

I also noticed that you aren’t registered as a Forum member yet. Why not register now so you can directly post your question and comments in the Forum’s discussion boards?
« Last Edit: December 27, 2011, 12:35:49 AM by Joe Carillo »