OCTOBER 1998

Conversation Starters:

The Correct Way to Use "Since"

Have you ever heard the expression "to make small talk"? Small talk is the kind of light social conversation people use to get to know each other. Like talking about the weather, it is meant to put people at ease. How good are you at starting up a conversation? At such moments, the last thing you need is to be unsure of your English.

So there you are, faced with a complete stranger. You are racking your brains for something to say and your knowledge of English which is normally so fluent, goes right out the window. In a first conversation, you may want to ask how long someone has been in the country. This is a good way to "break the ice" or "get the ball rolling". So how would you phrase that in English?

How was that again?

The correct way to say it is "How long have you been in Belgium?" or "How long have you been living in Belgium?" All too often, however, French and Dutch speakers allow their native language to interfere. Many French speakers get confused by "Depuis combien de temps..." or Dutch speakers by "Sinds wanneer..." and the English word "since" pops out before they know it. Typically, the question comes out as "Since how long are you living in Belgium?" This grammatically disastrous sentence will certainly be familiar to most English speakers living abroad!

With any luck, you will be understood just the same. You will not have to watch the faint tinge of panic creep across the stranger's complexion as they smile awkwardly and reply "Yes". Most English speakers will be able to figure out what you are trying to say, and will be overjoyed that you came up with this inspired question. They may even launch into a detailed travelogue or half of their life story in reply, during which all you have to do is nod and smile and try to understand what in the world they are saying. If you get tired of nodding, you might try "I see," or "How interesting," or some other encouraging interjection, before continuing with an appropriate follow-up question such as "And how do you like it here?"

Just in case things do not go so smoothly, however, let us take a closer look at that notorious incorrect sentence before you ban it from your memory forever: "Since how long are you living in Belgium?" It contains two major errors: the use of "since" and the use of the present continuous form of the verb. The second error leads to the popular variation on this incorrect theme, "How long are you living in Belgium?" Also wrong! The continuous part is fine (the person is still in Belgium, right?) but because you are referring to an action which has begun in the past and is still continuing, you should use the tense known as the present perfect: "How long have you been living...?"

Vive la différence

To put it another way, you are basically measuring how much time has elapsed since (there's that word again) the person arrived: "How long have you been living in Belgium?" Note that in French and Dutch, the verb would be in the present tense: "Depuis combien de temps habites-tu..." or "Hoe lang woon je al in...". This is one crucial case where English differs radically from the other languages. Remember the difference!

Straight answers

So now that we have got the question straight, what about the answer? What do you do if your conversational partner beats you to it and asks you first? How should you reply to our friendly inquiry, "How long have you been living in Belgium?" The correct form is "I have been living in Belgium for five years." When you are talking about an amount of time, always use the word "for": "I have been studying English for three years." However, note that the ever-popular "I have been living here since two years," is completely incorrect.

Now that you know how not to use "since", how should you use it then? "Since" is probably most frequently used as a conjunction, referring to a period of time which has begun in the past. You could translate it as "from the time that": "I have been wearing glasses since I was twenty years old," or "I have been in a good mood since I woke up." "Since" can also be used as an adverb to mean "because": "Since I did not hear from you, I thought you were not coming," or "Since my car was at the garage, I had to take the train." Used in this way, the subordinate clause starting with "since" is usually placed at the beginning of the sentence.

These tips should help you the next time you want to make polite conversation in English. When you master the art of small talk, it is a small world indeed.

Kate Grady