Mighty Red Pen

July 23, 2009

Across the lifespan

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:31 pm
Tags: , , ,

Laurie from Oregon has so much enthusiasm that I think I can only do justice to her observation by sharing what she wrote. It’s not so much a question as an extended comment on this little tidbit she spotted in a Reuters article about the world’s oldest man, Henry Allingham (who has passed away since the time that Laurie sent in this submission):


Her comments are concerning the use of the word span. In part, she writes:

I spotted a delightful whopper on Reuters today. “Allingham’s life has spanned three centuries and six monarchs…” Oh, really? Damn! That’s OLD, folks! Pause. Uh, oh! This is much worse than I thought!

The Concise Oxford American Dictionary says that, in this instance, “spanned” means “extend across (a period of time or a range of subjects).”. . . Doesn’t the phrase “has spanned three centuries” actually mean that this man’s life began in the first instant of one century and ended exactly three hundred years later? Yes, I think so. The object of “spanned” is “three centuries.” Centuries are whole units, so that part works grammatically. But, even if the “three” were changed to a more realistic “two,” the sentence is still incorrect. Human lives just don’t “span” centuries. They may span one century, but not, I think, two or more. To make matters worse, the poor guy was born in 1896. If he was born at the end of that century, can his life really be said to have “spanned” the time before his birth? It would seem that the author is intent on sternly calling this poor guy into being years before he actually existed and then ferociously condemning him to an inordinately long life.

If the author were to say instead “his life has spanned parts of two centuries,” what then? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just skip that all together and simply state the length of time spanned? Sure enough, a second foray into the dictionary confirmed that all definitions of “span” and its relatives clearly state that the entire distance or range or object or whatever is included when “span” is used. So, in order to use this word correctly, the amount spanned should be stated in its entirety and referred to as one unit. For example, we could say without blushing, “his life spanned 110 years and 227 days.” The period of time is one unit and it is spanned. End of confusion.

But there’s MORE! One can only guess how said monarchs felt about being “spanned.” Oh, I say! Her Majesty the Queen (‘specially not Victoria) would certainly disapprove. . . . Perhaps disaster could be avoided if the sentence read “…and the reign of six monarchs…” without our recklessly applying a spanner to the monarchs themselves.

If this sentence came across my editorial desk, I probably would have left well enough alone regarding spanned three centuries, my sense being that we generally understand that we are not saying that he lived for three centuries from end to end. My reading (perhaps imprecise) of the definition of span that Laurie mentions—“to extend across”—allows a bit of leeway in terms of whether the thing doing the spanning is, strictly speaking going from one end to the other. However, another definition of span—“an extent, stretch, reach, or spread between two limits”—speaks more directly to what Laurie is talking about.

Now regarding those six monarchs, it’s the sort of thing that I would probably skip over at first, then notice, and thenfeeling a bit nitpicky but wanting to be precise—I’d edit as Laurie is suggesting: “His life spanned the reign of six monarchs.” What do others think?

Thanks to Laurie for a spirited letter!


  1. I don’t know. When I first read the sentence, I immediately interpreted it as though this dude lived three hundred years long and then had to do an quick logic check to figure out what the author was trying to say. “An extent, stretch, reach, or spread between two limits” is certainly not what leapt to my mind in that context. That definition seems more appropriate for concepts where the measurement of a specific duration or distance can’t be (or just isn’t being) measured, such as “spanning time” or even “a lifespan.”

    Comment by John LaSala — July 24, 2009 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  2. I looked at it as spanning 3 centuries, not lived 3. interesting.

    Comment by Whoopers — August 6, 2009 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  3. I would have left it alone, MRP, including the monarchs. But maybe I’m underestimating its ability to confuse. “Allingham lived in three centuries during the reigns of six monarchs. Side note: It’s now rare for anyone in England to have lived under six monarchs, but millions of people fit that description in 1952.

    Comment by Mark Allen — August 6, 2009 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

  4. Can only agree with Mark Allen’s use of words, that Henry “lived in three centuries” and “during the reign of six monarchs”. True, and unambiguous. I think.

    Comment by Ian Collins — August 21, 2009 @ 6:41 pm | Reply

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