Usage and Grammar

Q. I searched in vain for guidance about the use of the word “early” in expressions like “in the early twentieth century.” What is the maximum number of years (five, ten, twenty-five) that would still make sense? Could we consider this to mean “in the first quarter of the twentieth century”?

A. The word “early” will always be an approximation. But we like your idea of using a quarter century as the cutoff point, which would allow us to define “early” as anything that happens up to about 1925, “middle” as the fifty-year period from 1925 to 1975, and “late” as anything after 1975.