in/with hindsight

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 And now on to the show. What preposition goes before hindsight?

This was a recent Twitter Difference of the Day, and a conveniently simple thing to blog about during (BrE academic) marking season. I'd asked an American lexicographer to (BrE) have/(AmE) take a look at the chapter about (among other things) lexicography in my book manuscript. I had written with hindsight in my book manuscript and he queried whether I'd "gone native" with my preposition. Indeed, it seems I had. As you can see in the screenshot, the GloWBE corpus shows that AmE prefers in hindsight.





I'd say that BrE prefers in too, since with 929 hits, in is the 'winning' preposition before hindsight in BrE. But add of and with together, and they've got 952 hits. I'd say they probably should be added together because the of number actually stands for the longer with-ful phrase: with the benefit of hindsight.

Using hindsight in this kind of prepositional phrase meaning 'in retrospect', seems to be a mid-20th-century thing. No preposition here is the 'original', as far as I can tell, but the in is probably affected by the expression in retrospect. There's less hindsight used in this way in AmE, but AmE has more in retrospect (about 1.5x more).

61 comments

  1. A genuine question: is "reach out" (meaning communicate with) in fact American in origin?

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    1. I think we got the sense of emotional communication from Motown.

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    2. I wrote about it back here: https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/anti-americanismism-part-2.html

      And when I did, I was kind of out-of-date the goings-on in AmE. When I moved to UK, I didn't know the simple 'communicate with' meaning--it wasn't yet common. What I did know was the emotional sense. There was a commercial for the phone company with 'reach out and touch someone' as its jingle, but I still associated it with the emotional usage (as 'touch someone' would imply). So, it's a pretty recent thing for people to say 'we wanted to reach out and let you know about our special offers', and yes it does seem to be American.

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    3. The OED lists

      2 intrans
      ...
      f fig. of the mind, spirit, etc.spec. with out: to offer sympathy, support, assistance, or understanding to; also with for (a person, help, etc.).

      Their earliest quotation with out:

      1912 Publ. U.S. Children's Bureau No. 153. 166 Groups and agencies which are planning to reach out to low-income families with educational efforts in the area of sound family life.

      It doesn't sound that odd in British English, particularly with reference to 'caring' agencies. And the noun outreach sounds perfectly commonplace.

      'Reach out and touch' seems to be the metaphor of the Holland-Dozier-Holland song Reach Out (I'll Be There).

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  2. I (elderly BrE speaker) find both in hindsight and with hindsight spring equally to mind. But for me both of them mean 'with the benefit of hindsight' — not simply 'in retrospect'.

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  3. I'm with David Crosbie. My instinctive usage would be "with the benefit of". Or I might more commonly use "on second thoughts".

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    1. Is "on second thoughts" normal BrE usage? I have always used, and heard "on second thought" (singular) in AmE. (I've lived both in the west and east coast.)

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    2. I think it's the norm here. Personally, I would never say on second thought.

      The preference is confirmed by one version of this popular verse:

      Today's my daughters wedding day,
      Ten thousand pounds I'll give away
      On second thoughts, which are
      [my emphasis] the best,
      I'll keep it in the old oak chest


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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    4. In Canada, we use "on second thought" (singular) too. I've never heard it with the plural. We also use "in hindsight" rather than "with"

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  4. BrE native, since that seems to get forgotten. I'd probably split between saying "in hindsight" on most occasions (I might not in a prepared speech) and informally writing "in hindsight" and formally writing "with the benefit of hindsight." I'm sipping my first tea of the day so that might not be quite right but it feels pretty much right.

    "With hindsight" without the extra words in the middle sounds odd to me. I'd understand it but I can't imagine myself saying it and certainly not writing it. I'm not sure if that's generational or regional though.

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  5. Anonymous in New Jersey20 May, 2017 21:09

    Two things:

    Is "One-off" so much more common to BrE that it gets marked? How did I not know that? (As I've probably demonstrated here many times, I sometimes confuse the two dialects. I am not sure why that happens, either.)

    and (as if to further underline my parenthetical point above, I'm wrong about the next question)

    Isn't "have a look" more common to BrE than to AmE? I admit that I sometimes use it, but I'm fairly certain most people I know use "take a look". I thought that there a post here about the "have a ______"(BrE)/"take a _____"(AmE) dichotomy, but I'm terrible at searching the blog.

    – AiNJ

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    1. There is a light post about light verbs:
      https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/some-light-verbs-take-vs-make.html

      The recent American acceptance of BrE 'one-off' is part of the reason for Ben Yagoda's blog 'Not One-Off Britishisms'.
      https://britishisms.wordpress.com/about/

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  6. Anonymous in New Jersey20 May, 2017 22:52

    Thanks, Lynne. I'll have to have a look at Yagoda's blog.

    I thought that you'd covered have/take at some point. And now I see you've edited the post, making the second half of my comment moot. (Oh, the sacrifices of anonymity!)


    – AiNJ

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    1. Anonymous in New Jersey20 May, 2017 22:54

      I meant to type "'take' a look".

      – AiNJ

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  7. Canadian here (mid-20s). We also say "in hindsight", which could be used synonymously with "in retrospect" in most cases.

    The saying "hindsight's 20/20" is common in North America; is it also used in the UK?

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    1. Personally I'd feel comfortable with

      with twenty twenty hindsight

      Anything else would sound odd.

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    2. Here in the USA, I have heard only "hindsight is 20-20"; "20-20 hindsight" would sound to me like a certain kind of hindsight, whereas "hindsight is 20-20" says to me that all hindsight is that way. Also, I can't recall hearing any preposition with "hindsight" except "in." But I'm 63 and there's a lot I can't recall.

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  8. From a few minutes into the BBC Radio 4 segment:

    "I have yet to hear anybody, even in the United States, talk about, 'You pull this [lɛ]ver and guess what happens'."

    Um...

    "This isn't a linguistic thing, it's a pronunciation thing."

    Um...

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  9. According to John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary both levᵊr and liːvᵊr are found in 'General American', so John Humphreys may have been reporting an actual truth. (Alternatively he could have misremembered, or translated the pronunciation mentally without noticing.)

    The complication is leverage. I tend to think of it as two separate words:

    MECHANICAL ˈliːvərɪdʒ
    FINANCIAL ˈlɛvərɪdʒ

    because I learned the financial term without understanding the metaphor. I suspect I may not be alone.

    Wells gives only one British pronunciation and only one (different) American.

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    1. It seems very unlikely that Mr. Humphreys has only heard Americans say liːvᵊr before, considering that I haven't heard that pronunciation once in my nearly 3 decades living in America. I find a lot of the pronunciations listed in LPD very odd; I'm not sure who was surveyed for that dictionary. This isn't a big deal anyway; I just found that first quote really funny.

      But, back on subject: do I say "with hindsight" or "in hindsight"? I say "in hindsight."

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    2. John Wells is a phonetician of high repute. And he's far from alone in recognising that pronunciation. Pretty well all the online dictionaries I can find give it as an American variant, albeit the less common one.

      America is a big place. I've found a website which states — maybe reliably — that liːvᵊr is the more common variant in the South. And there could well be an demographic factor. There's a huge gap between your age and Humphrys' age. Plus how often does anybody in any region and in any age talk about levers?

      I don't think it all that unlikely that John Humphrys has never heard levᵊr in America — and has also never heard liːvᵊr there, although he thinks he has.

      It's also possible that he has heard levᵊr in the past but failed to recognise it as a pronunciation of lever. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have understood the pronunciation until I twigged that financial leverage was the same as mechanical leverage. And I'm just a year younger than Humphrys.

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    3. I've (AmE) heard both l/ɛ/ver and l/i/ver, but l/i/ver sounds like someone trying to be faux-educated or pretentious (which tends to be my gut response to Americans using British-y pronunciations of things). Also, I have never in my life heard l/i/verage, and even though l/ɛ/ver and l/i/ver are both acceptable to me, l/i/verage gives me a distinct feeling of Wrongness.

      Perhaps Mr. Humphreys just hasn't heard Americans talk about levers enough. They're not really a common subject of conversation, in my experience.

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    4. Leverage may have started off as a metaphor based on levers, but it is now, especially when used as a verb, just one of those words that people like management consultants use (exclusively with American pronunciation wherever they come from, for whatever reason) to make it sound like they understand something about your business that you don't and that you should pay them a lot of money to write a report about it. Its strength in this context is its very opacity.

      I came across a prime example of this in last week's supplement to The Times about the 2017 MCA (Management Consultancy Assosociation?) Awards. A company called Arcadis won the Consulting Excellence Award for Professional Development (pdf) for their Global Shapers Program, which (as far as I recall) involved 100 kids barely out of university going round the world talking to each other about management consultancy and how great it was that they worked for Arcadis. One of them got on the program by making a video of herself rapping (about management consultancy, presumably?). The article included a quote from another particpant who used the word leverage, (as a verb), along with a few other such buzzwords with mismatched parts of speech to create what seemed to me to be (arguably) a sentence with no other meaning than "It's great that I got on this program". The guy was pretty much illiterate, or at least not very good at using the English language (which I think was his first language) to express himself.

      If anyone here has paid to go behind the Times' paywall, perhaps they can offer up the specimen so you can all see exactly what I mean. I was going to copy it out, but couldn't be arsed.

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    5. On the other hand, in fairness to the young man, perhaps what he actually did was demonstrate that he had mastered the art of using a lot of long words to say something I felt I ought to understand , but didn't.

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  10. "In hindsight" sounds "wrong" to me [BrE]. I want to use "with (the benefit of) hindsight". I'd also use "20/20 hindsight".

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  11. I think I use 'with hindsight' more than 'in hindsight' - but I am clear that it is not the same as 'in retrospect', which does not imply that one would have done things differently if one had the knowledge acquired from looking back. Hence the ironic 'hindsight is a wonderful thing'.
    As a Brit of a certain age, I would never use 20/20 in connection with eyesight, whether real or virtual. To me, it's an American usage.

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  12. My German husband thinks saying lɛːvər is ridiculous. I have some sympathy for him, although I tell him he just has to accept our rather inconsistent pronunciation habits. As a Brit, I say nɛːvər, ɛːvər and sɛːvər; not niːvər, iːvər and siːvər. Why DO we Brits say liːvər? and liːvərɪdʒ? There's even a castle in SE England called Hiːvər Castle. It never occurs to anyone to ask why it's pronounced that way.

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    1. On the other hand, fever...

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    2. There you go... :)

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    3. I'm reminded of the TV series Not the Nine O'clock news did a mock country and western song back in 1980 called "I Believe", a reaction to the recent presidential election. A couplet went:

      I believe that liːvər is pronounced lɛːvər
      And that the greatest movie ever made was Saturday Night Fɛːvər

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    4. The song is on youtube:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7eCUEfb7U0

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    5. FPR

      I can give you an answer of a sort, but it won't be very satisfying...

      First of all, let's sort out transcription. I think your use of the symbol ɛː may come from you and your husband discussing German. For English it's better to use ɛ or e for what is in all accents of English a SHORT sound.

      (In the past I've seen ɛː used for the vowel sound in fair, square, there, their — but not recently.)

      The second vowel sound in endeavour and first vowel in ever, clever, sever and the American pronunciation of lever is sometimes called short-E. A really useful term, though is the DRESS vowel.

      The second vowel sound in believer, receiver and the first vowel in beaver, peever and the American pronunciation of lever is sometimes called long-E. A really useful term, though is the FLEECE vowel.

      The names short-E and long-E were good decorations of sounds at the time that English spelling was regularised. They sounded more similar then — apart, of course, from their length — but pronunciation has changed a lot since then.

      To show the difference in length, early printers (and some scribes before them) often used the device of DOUBLE CONSONANT LETTERS to signal a short vowel sound and SINGLE CONSONANT LETTER to signal a long vowel sound.

      It's easier to find examples of this device for spellings with letters A, I, O, U, but there are some for letter E.

      FLEECE...........................DRESS
      (single consonant).........(double consonant)
      veto........................~......vetted
      zero........................~......herring
      meted out...............~......upsetting
      query.......................~......cherry

      If all words were as simple as this, the British pronunciation of leverwould be a no-brainer, and the American pronunciation would demand the spelling levver. But things are not at all that simple.

      • Modern English words with the FLEECE sound have different pronunciation histories. Some are from the original long E sound that existed when English spelling was regularised, but some started from different sounds. So, there are more FLEECE words spelled with ea or ee or ie than there are with single letter e.

      • Although DOUBLE CONSONANTS are often used to signal a DRESS vowel, the device isn't common to ALL consonants. And the consonant letter that's virtually never doubled is letter-V.

      So English has ended few words with the spelling -ever — although we have quite a few with the two possible sound combinations:

      DRESS endeavour
      FLEECE leaver, deceiver, believer, (Danny) Deever

      The tiny number of words spelled -ever have different pronunciation histories.
      • One is shared by ever, never, whenever etc.
      • The origin of clever is obscure — perhaps a dialect word pronounce with a short I.
      Fever seems to have started with a 'foreign' French pronunciation.

      So did lever start out like fever and then changed in American pronunciation? Or did it start out like ever and then changed in British pronunciation? Either way, it would be very easy to change on the analogy of one or two out of a tiny set of apparent analogies.

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    6. Thank you for your analysis and promotion of Prof. Wells's key words for lexical sets. On the matter of the use of IPA, though, I'd like to request readers not to use [e] to denote an English sound. The DRESS vowel is best transcribed as [ɛ]. The FACE diphthong could be transcribed as [ei] or [eɪ]. However, in the context of English, [e] is ambiguous because it's not clear whether the writer means DRESS but has instead used a character that's easier to type than ɛ, or means FACE but has simplified the diphthong.

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  13. Perhaps we say fever and lever and Hever, to prevent people from mixing the words up with feather and leather and heather, which some who have problems with voiced 'th's do. Speculation is probably fruitless.

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    1. Unfortunately we also have the spellings heathen, sheathing, breather

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  14. Feverage this (YouTube) -- what a lovely way to burn!

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  15. @biochemist

    "20/20 [...] is an American thing"

    Yes, in the system used by British ophthalmologists, I believe perfect vision is "6/6". I'm afraid I don't know what the figures stand for in either case.

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    1. 20 feet and 6 metres, according to Wikipedia, which seems to mean that at a distance of 6 metres, you can see things you ought to be able to see at 6 metres. 6/12 means you can see things at 6 metres as if they were 12 metres away, and 6/3, as if they were only 3 metres away.

      But I can't say I've ever heard an optician say any of these terms in the UK. (At my last eye test, I was told I am now not legally entitled to drive without glasses, for the first time in my life. As I've never learnt to drive, this is not a problem.)

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    2. I've just had my eyes tested and got a copy of my (UK) prescription. They give the focal length of the lens required in the prescription, which is what the person making the lens requires. There's space for other stuff to correct astigmatism and so on.

      They, even to me, tend to talk in terms of mild, moderate or bad short-sight or long-sight, rather than giving numerical values. Lynne has talked at length in other posts about the infantilisation of the medical terminology in the UK compared to the US and I guess this is technically one.

      But honestly, although I normally like to know the fine details I don't care. If the optician and the person who makes my glasses get it wrong, I'm concerned, but beyond that, I don't really care that much - I know I can't see that well without glasses, I want them to give me glasses that correct it please.

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    3. @Eloise: "They, even to me, tend to talk in terms of mild, moderate or bad short-sight or long-sight...."

      Which, in the AmE I'm familiar with would be "nearsightedness" and "farsightedness".

      (To echo the discussion in the previous thread, perhaps.)

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    4. Whereas in BrE farsightedness and nearsightedness tend to be used figuratively. A farsighted person is one with a vision of the future.

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    5. Paul, in North America, we use "nearsighted" figuratively too... although I don't think I often hear the figurative "farsighted". And we use both to refer to eyesight as well, of course.

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    6. I meant, only figuratively. I'm longsighted, in that I need reading glasses (varifocals now), but whether I'm farsighted is for others to judge.

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    7. Incidentally, is ophthalmologist itself an Americanism? Chambers gives ophthalmology as the science of the eye, with no separate definition of ophthalmologist. (The word is just listed.)

      To me, the person you go to get your eyes tested is the optician (and that's what it says on their shops). Chambers does give "ophthalmic optician" as "an optician qualified both to prescribe and dispense spectacles".

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    8. I think the figurative 'short-sighted' would be the BrE for someone who couldn't think about the consequences of their actions.
      And if you are figuratively farsighted, you have foresight!
      Is foresight the inverse of hindsight? I think so.

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    9. The earliest citation I could find for "ophthalmologist" is from 1821, from a medical treatise written by the very English-sounding "Surgeon-Oculist and Aurist to His Royal Highness the Duke of York". (This is earlier than the earliest citation from the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary; I don't have access to the online version).

      For what it's worth, newspaper archives also seem to show the word appearing in British, Irish and Commonwealth sources earlier than American papers.

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    10. Apologies for anachronistic use of "Comonwealth" in my last comment :)

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    11. But many Americanisms are British archaisms.

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    12. vp

      The online OED entry for ophthalmologist is a Third Edition revision. But it still doesn't have your 1821 quote. I think you should sent it to them.

      Their earliest quote is

      1826   Lancet 2 Sept. 719/2   Whence is it that an ophthalmologist (οϕθαλμιων) communicates this disease easily to the eye of a sound person?

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  16. 20/20 vs 6/6, Ophthalmologist vs optician,

    As it happens, I had a routine eye test yesterday. I had cause to mention this thread, when my optician (sic) used "20/20". I expressed surprise, saying I thought British usage was "6/6" and mentioning my earlier comment on this blog. She explained (in an echo of the great squint/strabismus debate as well as the general theme of creeping Americanisation) that she uses 20/20 now when talking to patients (clients? - can't remember what word she used) because that's the expression they mostly understand as meaning "perfect vision", and put it down to the influence of film and television. She also pointed out that I was wrong to say "ophthalmologist", because people like her, who test your eyes, are "opticians", while an opthalmologist is a far grander creature (my words, those), a consultant* specialist on a par with a consultant surgeon, to whom one might be referred by an optician.

    *Someone who is consulted (/Am with?) -- not, as I fear many a management consultant might say, someone who "consults".

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    1. AmE has three different categories:

      Ophthalmologist - Medical doctor specializing in eyes.
      Optometrist - Doctor of optometry. Again an eye specialist with a 4-year doctorate, but apparently without the other training required of an MD.
      Optician - One who makes eye correction devices (glasses, contact lenses).

      For more: https://www.aapos.org/terms/conditions/132

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    2. Come to think of it, my first optician (c.1964, England) had "Ophthalmic Opticians" as their strapline. I will have to have a squint at the signs outside the premises of some of the very many opticians in town to see if this is still used.

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    3. The two I saw yesterday had just "Opticians".

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    4. I think that, when I was small, I was referred to an ophthalmologist because the local dispensing opticians didn't trust themselves to prescribe for me correctly. I suspect I was a lot more nearly blind than anybody ever let on! However, they caught it in time, and I have coped very happily with spectacles (and occasional forays into contact lenses) ever since.

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  17. Susie Dent is wasted on radio. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F32vWDH4eGE

    Crazy fan? The potty-mouthed protagonist of Countdown's special spot is surely not referring to me?!

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  18. Cressida Dick, the most important police chief in Britain, and one with a pressing need for communication skills has just urged us all to reach out to our police.

    [If you're reading this in the future and long after the event, it was in the context of a terrorist attack not many hours previously.]

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  19. As a native BrE speaker, I have always said 'with hindsight'. I started to hear 'in hindsight' in recent years and wondered where it had come from.

    Google Ngram viewer confirms this to an extent. In fact, it shows 'with hindsight' losing popularity since around 2002: https://goo.gl/WHBV5K

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  20. In a letter to the Guardian of 5 Aug 2017, Dr John Ellis of Tavistock, Devon writes (regarding the UK govt's target of having only electric cars on our roads by 2040):

    " ... It does not need 2020 [sic] hindsight to see that the demands on electricity generation will rocket in order to support a nation using only electric cars..."

    He seems to be using hindsight to mean "foresight". Perhaps this is an isolated solecism but, on the other hand, perhaps it bodes an extension of the use of hindsight?

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    1. Or, on the third hand, perhaps it's a joke.

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  21. Btw, I notice the Susie Dent programme has been repeated and is available on the iplayer (UK only)

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AmE = American English
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