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Waking up to the Meaning of “in the Wake of”

Timothy Knox was reading a tech blog the other day and noted the following citation:

“In wake of Vista [Microsoft's new operating system], he [Steve Ballmer] says, Microsoft will never again wait five years to upgrade a major product” (ComputerWorld).

Timothy says, “The blog author’s comment was: ‘Uh, gee, ComputerWorld, have you ever seen a boat? Because, the wake comes AFTER the boat goes by. This boat is still in dry dock.’ This is in reference to the fact that Microsoft Windows Vista has yet to ship [so to speak—RB].”

“That got me [Tim] to wondering, have we (the nit-pickers, the grammarians, those who differentiate between reticent and reluctant) lost the battle on ‘in the wake of’? Has the (mis)usage cited in ComputerWorld become the norm, or do most folks still understand that one event can’t be “in the wake of” another until that other event has happened?”

First, let me respond to Timothy’s last question, “Have we lost the battle on in the wake of?” I don’t think so. My impression is that the farther we live from the water the squishier the meaning of this phrase gets but most of us know what it means. Most of us, i.e. the speech nit-pickers (those of us who know a nit is the egg of an original louse) have lost the battle for precise speech, probably 3000 years ago. Careful speakers have been complaining about misuse of language for that long.

However, I think I can see what the ComputerWorld writer was getting at: he is placing Ballmet in the wake of the Vista which has now concluded its development at Microsoft. This writer did something we all do in speaking (but shouldn’t in writing): truncate our phrases. He meant to say, “In wake of the development of Vista, he says, Microsoft will never again wait five years to upgrade a major product”. When we say, “I ran off the road on my way over” we mean “I ran my car off the road on the way over.” “I quit the project” really means “I quit working on the project.” Anyone sensitive to precise speech has heard numerous others.

Of course, this sort of shorthand speech inevitably leads to the sort of avoidable misunderstandings we see in this case, so recognizing the problem for what it is does not excuse it.

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