Reports

There’s Always Next Week

June, 2020 Language Matters

When discussing and scheduling events, we often use next to point to a date in the future.

We’ll meet again next weekend.

This temporal modifier is supposed to make language more efficient, providing a shorthand for a longer expression such as the weekend of September 5 to 6. And yet, this seemingly simple method for situating events in time is known to cause frequent and maddening confusion. Exchanges like the following are not uncommon:

“I’ll call you next Thursday.”
“Do you mean this coming Thursday, or the Thursday after?”

This example reveals that next gives two possible interpretations in such contexts. This article will look at this conundrum and suggest how to avoid confusion.

The Function of Next

Next is a deictic modifier, meaning its interpretation relies on context-specific information: next Saturday from the perspective of June 7, 2020, has an entirely different identity to next Saturday from the perspective of September 8, 1666. Other examples of deictic words include you, today and over there. Deictic words are meant to facilitate communication, which is why the ambiguity around next {day of the week} can seem so counterintuitive.

Thinking in Weeks

The week is an important unit with which we make sense of our time: we see it as a seven-day “structuring rhythm in ordinary life”.1 As a result, we often prefer to use days of the week rather than month-dates to talk about events in the near past or future. Let’s look at when talking about days of the week can lead to confusion.

Which Day Exactly?

Let’s imagine we are planning a birthday party and we invite some friends to come over (or convene on video chat) next Saturday. If we communicate the invitation on Tuesday, June 2, surveys show that many native English speakers will interpret next Saturday as June 13, the second Saturday to arrive, also known as Saturday of next week; however, others will interpret next Saturday as June 6, the first Saturday to arrive, also known as this Saturday, this coming Saturday or simply Saturday.2

This ambiguity is unfortunate, unless we are happy to host two smaller parties on two separate days. By contrast, certain temporal distances between day-of-utterance and day-of-reference rule out ambiguity: the identity of next Saturday is far less ambiguous if we communicate the invitation on Friday, June 5, or Saturday, June 6, on which days all our invitees should reliably expect next Saturday to be June 13, especially since June 6 is more naturally described as tomorrow or today on these days-of-utterance. The deictic adverbials tomorrow and today are said to override the longer phrase next Saturday, which rules out the soonest-Saturday-to-arrive interpretation.

Rephrasing

A clear way to denote the soonest Saturday to arrive is this Saturday or this coming Saturday.3 A fairly clear way to denote the Saturday after the soonest (without outright stating the exact calendar date) is an unfortunately wordy but useful phrase like not this Saturday, but the Saturday after. Another good option is to specify which week the date in question inhabits: Saturday of this week or Saturday of next week. However, there is some disagreement on whether the week begins on Sunday or Monday. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) considers the week to begin on Monday, while many calendars group the weeks from Sunday to Saturday.4 So Sunday of this week to some speakers means Sunday of next week to others.

The further the temporal distance between day-of-utterance and day-of-reference, the more mind-bending it is to talk in days of the week, which is why phrases like Saturday after next Saturday should be avoided.

What’s a Scheduler to Do?

There seems to be no perfect system to remove ambiguity when using temporal next, because English users continue to have differences in interpretation, and so the safest solution is to specify the month-date, even if this requires you to open up your calendar.

The sale begins next Thursday, June 4.

A sentence like this supports the week-by-week conceptual view of time, while also removing any uncertainty.

Similar Conundrums

This sort of ambiguity crops up in similar ways when discussing the past with last. Confusion can also arise when using next to situate things in physical space. For this Language Matters author, for example, the next set of traffic lights is the set after the immediate upcoming set—much to the annoyance of her former driving instructor, for whom the next set of traffic lights could mean nothing other than the immediate upcoming set.

Conclusion

It is useful to be aware that temporal next, despite its popularity, carries a lot of potential for ambiguity. The surest way to clear communication, and well-attended parties, is to specify the exact calendar date.


  1. Gietz, Frederick and Laura Jarecsni. Linguistics Survey. Survey on Google Forms. Retrieved May 26, 2020; Wohlin, Johanna. (2019). See you next Tuesday : a study of temporal deictic modifiers "next" and "last". Retrieved May 26, 2020. 

  2. Henkin, David. (2015). Hebdomadal Form: Diaries, News, and the Shape of the Modern Work Week. Representations, 131(1), p. 52. Retrieved May 26, 2020.  

  3. We mustn’t be deceived into thinking that this, another deictic word, is without its own potential for ambiguity. This Saturday, on its own, without clues from verb tense, can mean either the first Saturday to precede the day-of-utterance, or the first Saturday to follow it.  

  4. ISO 8601 Date and Time Format. Retrieved May 26, 2020. 

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