Last and past

One of the minor fetishes still observed on The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk is an invented distinction between last and past.

If a reporter writes that “the students have been violently ill for the last four days,” a copy editor will change last to past. The thinking is, I suppose, that those are not the last days of the illness but merely the most recent, up to this point. We presumably imagine that if last were allowed to stand, the reader would assume that all the students had died.

I suspect this of being some Talmudic extension of the AP rule not to confuse recency with finality—an author’s last book being the one completed immediately before his death, his latest book being the one just published. The two terms can converge only once.

But “final” and “most recent” are both current senses of last. Referring to last year does not mean that you think that Harold Camping was right about the End Times.

Seeing little or no likelihood of confusion in the reader’s mind, I conclude that this distinction is another copy-desk-invented time-waster.

What I do not know is whether this fetish prevails in other shops as well. Readers, thoughts?



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