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I learned the following sentence from The Economist.

A hundred years on, superconductors have found widespread use in just one technology, magnetic resonace imaging, which lets doctors peer inside patients' bodies.

How should I understand the phrase "a hundred years on"? There are so many meanings of the preposition "on" in the dictionary. What kind of dictionary should I refer to when I have similar problems?

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Looking at a century on in NGrams, I'm surprised to see how rare it is - even half a century on seems to be more common. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 22:08
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

A hundred years on means a hundred years later; i.e. a hundred years after superconductivity was first observed.

I looked in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary that's built into my Kindle and en.wiktionary.org, and the best I could find was:

further forward; in an advanced state: I'll see you later on; time's getting on

-- Oxford English Dictionary

I agree that's not very helpful when you're trying to make sense of the phrase a hundred years on when there are so many other possible meanings. You have to rely on context. Look at the headline of the article you were reading:

Superconductors: A century after their discovery, superconductors are finally moving beyond scientific and medical uses and into power grids

or the preceding paragraph:

exactly a century ago, he ... discovered superconductivity.

I should also mention that the The Economist is notable for it's sophisticated-yet-playful use of English (plus the occasional foreign word, just to make things interesting). I consider The Economist the ultimate challenge for learners of English. I'm sure there are lots of words and usages in The Economist you won't find in most dictionaries.

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I like your comment about The Economist. :-) That helps a lot. –  Jack Dec 22 '11 at 5:10
    
However, 'A hundred years on, superconductors ...' does not seem to necessarily imply 'a hundred years after superconductivity was first observed.' It does not explicitly say after what (or counting from when). –  Kris Dec 22 '11 at 9:38
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@Kris: It does imply "a hundred years after what I mentioned just now", so you have to either read the article or make a reasoned guess (bearing in mind that superconductors were discovered 100 years ago). –  TimLymington Dec 22 '11 at 21:25
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On functions as an adverb rather than a preposition in the sentence since it is NOT followed by a direct object.

Here is the 35th meaning of on from dictionary.com.

forward, onward, or along, as in any course or process: further on.

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Read it as: A hundred years later.

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The meaning of the sentence is as follows:

Superconductors would have become Popular after a period of hundred years they have invented.

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Please see my comment on Pitarou's answer. –  Kris Dec 22 '11 at 9:40
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