Ten years ago, Jack was unemployed for two years.

bennyfriendly

Senior Member
korean
One of my non-native English speaking friends found the example below. I am not sure where he got it.

(ex) Five years ago, Jack was unemployed for two years. Then, he decided to go back to school.

I am trying to interpret the meaning of the example. I think the time reference, five years ago, marks the beginning of Jack's unemployment. It lasted two years before he planned to study again.

Some of my other friends disagree with me. They see the time frame in a different way. That is, his two-year unemployment ended five years ago. Then, he planned to go back to school.

In short, I think the "five years ago" marks the beginning of his unemployment whereas my friends think it marks the end of it.

How would you interpret this? Thank you very much for your valuable time and help.
 
  • dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    Five years ago, Jack was unemployed for two years. Then, he decided to go back to school.
    To me, in AE, it is ambiguous.

    "Five years ago" refers to an exact time, not a 2-year-long time period. The sentence does not say whether this exact time was at the start or the end of "was unemployed", which is a state which lasted for 2 years.

    This is not a well-formed sentence. Almost any English speaker can communicate better than this. We don't say "five years ago, someone was in a certain situation for two years". We know you can't fit 2 years into an exact moment. It's like saying "This morning I spent 34 hours reading."
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Since the important thing is his going back to school, I would interpret it that five years ago was (towards) the end of his period of unemployment, but this would be far better stated by using "had been unemployed".

    My interpretation is based purely on the small amount of context we have, not the verb tense, which offers no clues either way, except for the negative clue that the past perfect not being used could be because the past perfect does not fit the situation, because "five years ago" does not mark the end of the time period.
    Almost any English speaker can communicate better than this.
    :thumbsup:
     

    bennyfriendly

    Senior Member
    korean
    Thank you very much for the feedback my fellow members provided. I just spoke to my friend who gave me the example. He said he got it from his cousin. His cousin was trying to use "five years ago" as a temporal reference to talk about someone's unemployment that could occur either before or after that reference point. He knows his example is ambiguous. As all of you have suggested, he should probably rewrite it in two different ways to shift the period of unemployment.

    To indicate that Jack's unemployment occurred before "the point of five years ago", Uncle Jack is suggesting the use of the past perfect. The revised example is given below.

    (1) Five years ago, Jack had been unemployed for two years. Then, he decided to go back to school.

    To state that his unemployment took place after that point, I am wondering if I can say it this way, shown below.

    (2) Five years ago, Jack lost his job. He remained unemployed for two years, at which point he decided to go back to school.

    Do you think the revisions have eliminated the ambiguity? I really appreciate your valuable time and help. Thanks again.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Do you think the revisions have eliminated the ambiguity?
    Yes, but in (1), the use of "then" suggests his decision happened later, conceivably much later (although this would not make a lot of sense in this context). To tie the decision to five years ago, you would do better to use a different word, such as "so".
     

    bennyfriendly

    Senior Member
    korean
    Thank you very much again, Uncle Jack. "So" is definitely a more appropriate word choice. Can I use "Immediately after that, he decided ...". Your detailed explanations are very clear and have helped me understand this topic better. I really appreciate your help and others who have contributed their ideas to my post. Many thanks.
     
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