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What's the difference between these two sentences?

I'm leaving.

I'll be back in an hour.

I won't be back for an hour.

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    I can't immediately see a difference in meaning. "I won't be back for an hour" stresses that the person will be gone; "I'll be back in an hour" stresses the speaker will come back.
    – cruthers
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 2:39

2 Answers 2

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The first sentence, 'I'll be back in an hour', is not stating a maximum. The second, 'I won't be back for an hour' is not stating a minimum.

If the person making the first statement meant to provide a maximum they would say (e.g.)

'I'll be back in an hour or less'.

Likewise, if the second is intended to give a minimum, they'd say something like

'I won't be back for an hour or more'
or
'I won't be back for at least an hour'.

As the sentences stand, without these additions, they just mean the speaker expects to be absent for one hour, although the first concentrates on on the time of their return, and the second on the duration of the speaker's absence.

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  • Ach laddie, so stringent. are ya?
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 23:07
  • Excellent answer. I like it.
    – Stephen
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 0:24
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The first sentence,

I'll be back in an hour.

declares a maximum time of one hour before my return.

I won't be back for an hour.

declares a minimum time of one hour before my return.

Although those are the meanings, both expression may be intended more loosely than that.

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    I strongly disagree that there's any sense of maximum in the first sentence. The second sentence does seem more ambiguous, given that it's stated in the negative, but still creates an expectation that the person will be back in an hour and would be a misleading thing to say if truly meant as a minimum.
    – cruthers
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 2:45
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    The first sentence means that the person expects to be back in an hour (leaving a margin for approximation in normal conversation) and not sooner (or later) than an hour. There's no indication (without further context) that the statement is a promise at all. If it is a promise, the person may well be promising to be away for an hour.
    – cruthers
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 3:06
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    if the person making the first statement meant to provide a maximum they would say (e.g.) 'I'll be back in an hour or less'. Likewise, if the second is intended to give a minimum, they'd say something like 'I won't be back for an hour or more' or 'I won't be back for at least an hour'. As the sentences stand, without these additions, they just mean the speaker expects to be absent for one hour, although the first concentrates on on the time of their return, and the second on the duration of the speaker's absence. Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 7:54
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    @Skye-AT - That is unhelpful. Translating the examples to another language to determine the answer, and using that result to give an opinion or vote, doesn't work. (How can you even translate when you don't fully understand the original?)
    – cruthers
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 15:48
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    It may not be worth arguing about this but I'll take one last shot. If I say "I'll be back in an hour:", and it takes me 61 minutes to get back, that falsifies my prediction. It was a maximum. If I say "I won't be back for an hour", and I return after 59 minutes, my prediction is falsified. It was a minimum. All of this is aside from questions of precision of expression; it's the denotative meaning of the phrases. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 4:18

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