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“Going Forward” (The Triumph of Agency)

Over the last few decades the American finance industry has given birth to the phrase “going forward” as a replacement for the quotidian and conventional phrase “in the future” to designate time, e. g., “If it is true that America’s biggest banks are too big to be ‘resolved’, this has profound implications for our banking system going forward [emphasis added] . . . .” (Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy [New York, 2010, p. 118]). No one in the finance industry doubtless thinks twice about the cognitive implications of this substitution, but an analysis that links language necessarily to its users’ forma mentis will demonstrate that the upshot is hardly trivial.

All languages of the world deal with time by spatializing it. Accordingly, in the future is a phrase that localizes/locates future time, just as in the past and in the present do. By contrast, going forward specifies future time as a point that is achieved by motive force, with the added connotation of reaching that point through AGENCY. Although it is true that time is conceptualized as something that “goes/proceeds/travels forward,” the motion involved is embodied by an agent, human or otherwise, as in the sentence fragment quoted above (“banking system going forward”), where the phrase can also be secondarily interpreted as detached from any agent to mimic the grammatical status of in the future.

The semantic content comported by the new phrase vis-à-vis its traditional variant turns on the presence of the verb go, with its necessary grammatical reference to time and a concomitant implied agent––a content absent from the spatialized phrase in the locative. There has thus been not merely a linguistic change but a conceptual––and cultural––shift in the increasing preference for going forward: time has thereby been assimilated to agency, showing (yet again) that the purported dichotomy between language and society is false.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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