Here’s an interesting headline:

Seattle Cops Sorry About Arresting 70-Year-Old Black Vet for No Reason

(source)

Don’t click and read the source article yet. First answer the following question.

Question: How old was the vet when he was arrested, and how old is he now?

  1. 70 then, 70 now
  2. Under 70 then, 70 now
  3. 70 then, over 70 now
  4. Not enough information to tell

If 4 weren’t an option and I had to guess, I’d pick 1. But of course, we really don’t have enough information yet.

Fact: The arrest occurred last summer, and the vet had a birthday between then and now.

This fact eliminates choice 1. If, again, 4 weren’t an option and I had to guess, now I’d pick 3: He was 70 when they arrested him, and he’s 71 now. In fact, even if 4 were still an option, I’d pick 3 and be pretty confident about it.

It turns out, however, that the vet was 69 when he was arrested and is now 70 (at least according to the Gawker author).

Looking at the comments, I’m not the only one who guessed wrong.

Why did the title confuse us? At first, I thought it had something to do with the intensional nature of “be sorry about”, and the fact that the indefinite “[a] 70-year-old” is embedded under “sorry about”. But I don’t think that’s quite it. Other articles on the same topic have headlines like

Desk job for racist Seattle cop who arrested 70-year-old black man for carrying gold club

(source)

and sentences in the main text like

Facing mounting outrage, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced Thursday the removal from street duty of a white patrol officer who made racially charged comments on Facebook within two months of arresting a 70-year-old black man for carrying a golf club.

(source)

I find this usage quite strange. Here are some more strange examples.

Suppose I currently own a truck that’s been sitting out in the elements for years. It’s old, rusty, and hasn’t run in over a decade. But when I bought it 20 years ago, it was shiny and new and ran perfectly. Then can I say the following?

(Twenty years ago,) I bought a beat-up, rusty old truck with a broken engine
and flat tires.

Certainly not. Or how about this:

(Thirty years ago,) Sally gave birth to a successful, 30-year-old lawyer.

Definitely strange. Or how about this:

Back in 1945, my grandmother married a 90-year-old man.

Even if my grandfather is 90 right now, I cannot say such a sentence.

Obviously, I’ve contrived these examples in a way that the headline isn’t contrived: the timespan in my examples is much larger. But the overall point still stands: given enough displacement between two points in time and , it becomes odd to describe or refer to someone or something in using their properties in . (Matters are probably different for definite descriptions, though: Twenty years ago, I met the current US president sounds perfectly fine and unambiguously means I met Barack Obama, not Bill Clinton.)

And temporal displacement is probably not even what’s at issue here, as the following example shows.

I just drank an empty glass of water.

Just because I just drank a whole glass of water, and the glass is now empty, doesn’t mean I can say the above sentence. And in this case the temporal displacement between the time I drank the water and my uttering the sentence is pretty arbitrarily small.

My only thought is that maybe the authors were all using “70-year-old” in a loose sense, rounding up from 69, and therefore not referring to the man’s current age. That would at least explain the latter two sources, which don’t mention “69” anywhere (or maybe they actually thought he was literally 70 when he was arrested).

It wouldn’t explain the Gawker headline, though. But maybe the author is just a little confused, since first she says

This week, the Seattle Police Department issued an apology to a 70-year-old black veteran who …

and then in the very next sentence

William Wingate, a 69-year-old Seattle man who regularly used his golf club as a cane, was standing …

Or maybe… the “69” was just a typo all along. (I can’t actually find any other sources that say he was 69 when arrested.) But that would’ve made for a more boring blog post.