Long/a long time

Discussion in 'English Only' started by inib, Mar 19, 2012.

  1. inib

    inib Senior Member

    La Rioja, Spain
    British English
    Hello everybody,
    I've searched and seen hundreds of threads about both of the above terms, but I can't find one which directly compares and contrasts the two.
    I would say that in most cases they are interchangeable, eg: Have you been here for a long time/long?/They won't stay for a long time/long.
    But not always, and I'm having a hard job to explain to my students when and why.
    For example, I don't like the sound of long in the following sentences:
    It's (been) a long time time I saw him
    I haven't seen him for a long time
    It takes me a long time to get ready
    We waited for a long time (
    but have you been waiting long? sounds fine to me)

    I can't work out any theory about verb tenses, types of verbs etc. that it is consistent with all the examples.
    Any comments would be appreciated.
  2. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    English - British
    The two terms you choose ('long'/'a long time') are not parallel. They do not yield a valid substitution.
    'Long' as an adverb of time means 'for a long time'. This substitution will generally work.
    However, bear in mind that 'for a long time' will have different meanings at times.
    'I haven't seen him long' might be said by, for example, an inspector about a teacher. He means that he has not seen the teacher at work for any long period. Perhaps he has only watched him for half an hour.
    'I haven't seen him long' could be said by a manager about a new employee. He is saying that the time over which he has seen him is not long, counting from when the manager first saw him.
    'I haven't seen him for a long time' means 'It is a long time since I last saw him'.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2012
  3. rhitagawr

    rhitagawr Senior Member

    British English
    (1), (2), and (3) are all right, although you want the 'been' in (1).
    (4) would be better as 'We waited a long time'.
    It's (5) 'Have you been waiting long?', (6) 'Have you been here long?' and (7) 'They won't stay long.'

    It's usually 'for a long time' in affirmative sentences, e.g. (3) and 'long' in negative sentences and questions, e.g. (5-7), although there are many exceptions.
    You can have 'long' in affirmative clauses with 'to', 'enough', 'as' and 'so'. (8) 'Jenny's been talking long enough. It's about time she shut up.'
    You can have 'long' in affirmative clauses with prepositions and conjunctions. (9) 'Railways were around long before the invention of the car.' (10) 'Railways were around long before the car was invented.'
    'Long ago' is somewhat poetic. You're more likely to say 'a long time ago.'

    In negative sentences, 'long' and 'a long time' can sometimes have different meanings:
    (11) 'I didn't go out with her long' - our friendship was brief.
    (12) 'I didn't go out with her for a long time' - There was a long period when I didn't go out with her.
    Consider also:
    (2) 'I haven't seen him for a long time' - I last saw him a long time ago.
    (13) 'I haven't known him long' - I only met him recently.

    Cross-posted with wandle.
  4. inib

    inib Senior Member

    La Rioja, Spain
    British English
    Thank you very much, both.
    The affirmative/negative/interrogative idea hadn't ocurred to me at all. That's very useful.
    Regards, inib
  5. TommyGun Senior Member


    A very complicated and interesting theme was brought here. :)

    According to my grammar book, this sense (our friendship was brief) would be expressed by the following sentence, with for:
    (14) 'I didn't go out with her for long'

    Are there any differences in meaning between (11) and (14)?
  6. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    English - British
    No effective difference. Both are correct. (11) may be considered more pithy and therefore a stronger form of expression, but the difference is not really significant.
  7. velisarius Senior Member

    British English (Sussex)
    In post #2 "I haven't seen him long" sounds weird. I don't think the verb "to see" can carry the idea of duration in this way.

    I think you need to say:
    I haven't been watching him long."
    "I didn't watch him for long."

    My conclusion is that you need to show duration either by using the continuous tense "been watching", or by adding "for".

    In the same way I'd prefer "I wasn't going out with her long" or "I didn't go out with her for long."
  8. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    English - British
    Sorry, I have to disagree. 'See' can and regularly does have the meaning 'to look at' or 'watch'.

    Granted, we often find a contrast between 'see' meaning 'perceive without specific intention' and 'watch' meaning 'to look purposefully at'. However, that distinction does not mean that 'see' is confined to that meaning only.
  9. TommyGun Senior Member

    Don’t you think that (11) is ambiguous? In the sense that it could be perceived as “I didn’t go out with her for a long time.”

    That's an interesting suggestion! It would be useful to hear from other native speakers if they agree to this.

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