Over the past few years, I’ve noticed people using the phrase “fast forward” to indicate a passage of time. While I acknowledge the dynamic nature of language and try not to ride a high horse about “proper” English, I do find this phrase particularly jarring and troublesome. I’d like to take a moment to explain my concerns and, I hope, encourage you to think twice before using the phrase.
Here’s a pretty typical example from Forbes. “I served as a translator for both language and culture over the years and gained a deep appreciation of the challenges of navigating caregiving, education and culture. Fast forward to graduate school: My interest in supporting child well-being led me to become interested in better understanding policy.”
For starters, there’s an issue of “point of view” (POV). In case you forget POV from English class, first person = I; second person = you; third person = he/she/it/they.“Fast forward” shifts the point of view of a story. Most stories are told in first or third person. So if you say “fast forward,” who is doing the forwarding?
If no subject is identified, “fast forward” operates in the second person POV with “you” understood. In other words, when I say, “Call me later,” I’m really saying, “You call me later.” So in the example above, who’s fast forwarding? You aren’t telling the story. The phrase makes much more sense when the subject of the sentence takes clear ownership. “Let me fast forward to graduate school.” “Can you fast forward to graduate school …” But if I have control of a story, why are you the one fast forwarding?
Then, there’s an issue of redundancy. “Fast forward,” used to indicate a passage of time, is often used in conjunction with another phrase used to indicate a passage of time. For example, “But relevance wasn’t the point — this was all about toughness. Fast-forward to May 14, when 10 people were gunned down at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York” (MSNBC). Or “…President Donald Trump took a few steps in to North Korea and spoke about his friendship with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Fast-forward almost three years. President Biden is in Seoul, emphasizing his friendship with new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol” (NPR).
In both of these cases, fast forward is redundant. It is literally a waste of breath. The authors could just write “On May 14” or “Today.” Both choices are shorter and convey the same information. Brevity is a skill. Why use up our mental bandwidth for something you don’t need? If you can delete something, do it!
That being said, many writers will sprinkle in phrases to help set a theme. If you’re talking about movies, why not use “fast forward” as your time transition? And bits of jargon have been weaseling their way into our everyday language for centuries. In my introduction, I mention horses even though this essay really has nothing to do with horses. Below, I allude to plants. Considering the prevalence of video in today’s word, we can’t exactly prevent a phrase like “fast forward” from taking root. But there is a good reason I would caution against it.
Hollywood has done a great job convincing us that love at first sight is real, “smoking guns” exist, passionate speeches change people’s minds, and there’s always a parking spot directly in front of a courthouse. If you use the veracity of that last example to measure the other three, you can see how absurd some of these propositions really are. We don’t live in movies. We can’t fast forward and rewind at will, and we need to stop thinking that we can. “Sure,” you might say. “That’s a problem for tween influencers who want to star in reality shows. But I can tell the difference between reality and the movies.” Respectfully, I disagree.
Think back, if you will, to the early aughts, when one of the most powerful countries in the world invaded a sovereign nation under false pretenses. At that time, a paranoid Bush administration justified its torture of detainees not through psychology and jurisprudence, but through the Fox television show 24. Slate noted the troubling argument way back in 2008. Politicians, judges, and intelligence operatives were basing their actions off of a fictional television show with real-world ramifications. It’s hard for me to believe that fourteen years later, with the ubiquitous use of smart phones and social media, that our psychology has become less entwined with fiction, fantasy, and technology.
I need to reset here, briefly, because I am a fan of fiction. Fiction helps us explore questions and ideas that would not be accessible in a purely fact-driven world. Fiction helps us develop empathy. Understanding fiction helps us understand reality. But fiction is merely an analogy. Fiction and virtual worlds are not the same thing as flesh and blood, and I think it is incumbent on us to keep those lines distinct.
As we spend more time in the virtual world, manipulating images, audio, and video like gods, we need to keep the reality of our existence in mind. We can’t photoshop ourselves to be sexier, edit our conversations to remove faux pas, or fast forward our way through a traffic jam. I think acknowledging that fact, even in a small way, will lead us to accept the world we really live in and do our best to make this world a better place.