We’re hurtling down the freeway in my friend’s car. He’s driving. I’m riding shotgun, giving directions.
I tell him: “Get off at the next exit.” He says: “Okay.”
A few minutes later, as we approach the exit, he puts pedal to the metal and roars past it.
“Hey!” I exclaim. “You were supposed to turn off here. I just now told you. Did you forget?”
“You didn’t say this exit!” he yells, sounding defensive. “You said next exit.”
We have plenty of time now to bicker over who said what. It will be, after all, another eight miles before he can turn around. So bicker we do.
My meaning (I tell him) was crystal clear: “Back there” I could have said “this exit” or “next exit” and it would have referred to the same exit: the one we were coming up on.
My friend isn’t having it. “No,” he says.” “When you say ‘this’ exit, it’s the one coming up. The ‘next’ one is the one after that.”
We both stick to our guns, neither giving an inch. Our friendship somehow survives the verbal arm-wrestling.
That conversation took place around 35 years ago. It’s still green in my memory. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the various things people identify as “next”.
Let me count the ways:
If it’s February 29, then March 1 isn’t just “tomorrow” – it’s also “next month”. The month after the month we’re in right now.
Similarly, if it’s December 31, then the following day, January 1, isn’t just “tomorrow” and “next month” – it’s also “next year”. Any year immediately after the present year is “next”.
If we’re in line, I’m “next in line” after the person right in front of me. If you’re right behind me, you’re “next in line” after me. When the person we’re all waiting to see calls “Next!” we’ll know who’s next.
But it all gets wonky when we’re talking about days of the week. (Or exits on a freeway.) If today is Wednesday, and I mention “next Friday”, you probably won’t’ figure I mean “the day after tomorrow”. You’re more likely to assume I mean the Friday after the day after tomorrow.
Perhaps you’re thinking (or assuming unthinkingly) that if I meant Friday of this week, I would have said “this Friday”. Maybe you’d be right. Maybe not.
What if today is Tuesday, and I suggest we have lunch “next Monday”? Does that mean Monday of next week? Or Monday of the week after next?
That may depend on which Monday you think of as “this” Monday. If “this Monday” means the Monday that just transpired – in other words, yesterday – then perhaps the Monday coming up soonest is the “next” one.
Given our close proximity to a Monday barely concluded, wouldn’t it feel odd to speak of “this” Monday as a Monday that’s nearly a week away?
Some people would say yes. Others, no.
All I know is that I’ve listened for years, trying to figure out what people mean by “this” such-and-such versus “next” such-and-such. It’s a jumbled mess.
Different people definitely have differing ideas as to the meaning of “this” and “next” under different circumstances. Even the same individual may, at different moments, use these terms in completely contradictory ways.
I just mentioned to Cheri that I’m writing about the confusion surrounding “next”. She tells me she missed two TV shows this week after promos indicated they would air “next Thursday”. She took this to mean “Thursday of next week”, and only learned later that they meant “this coming Thursday”.
Ah – someone to share my pain!
My answer is to always provide (or request) more in the way of detailed specifics than some might consider necessary: “Can we do lunch next Friday? You know – Friday of next week, Friday June 28?”
Or, if I’m giving moment-by-moment driving directions: “Get off at this next exit! The exit coming up, okay? Exit number, lessee, I believe that’s exit 394. The one you see right there, with the McDonald’s billboard?”
Conversely, if you invite me to lunch “next Friday”, please forgive me if I ask: “You mean Friday of next week – Friday, June 28?”
To which, if experience is any guide, you’ll just as likely reply, “No, I meant the day after tomorrow.”
Okay, let’s be glad we got that cleared up!
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)