One Word: Next

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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.”

One Word: Next

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.)


Comments

One Word: Next — 7 Comments

  1. Where is your friend from? I’ve lived in countries where “next Saturday” means the one after the coming one.

    • John, even if you had only ever lived here in the US, you’d have lived in a country where “next Saturday” means the one after the coming one. By saying it “means” that, I mean that’s how the majority of US-born speakers of American English seem to interpret it. (At least the ones I’ve listened to or questioned.)

      The problem is, we don’t all mean that, not all the time. It depends on who’s the speaker, and that speaker’s mood of the moment. So there’s always a chance of misunderstanding. This wouldn’t be the case in a country where everyone always spoke the same way.

      My friend was a relatively recent arrival from Iran (aka Persia). I’m not sure what’s standard in his native Persian language. Nor am I even sure whether Persian has a standard in this respect. But he assured me, during our conversation, that he was following a US usage he already had observed here, repeatedly.

      For days of the week (and only for days of the week), the online Oxford Dictionary of American English allows either usage as correct: “nearest (or the nearest but one) after the present”. (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/next) So according to this authoritative lexicon, “next” Saturday means either (a) the nearest coming Saturday, or (b) the one after that. Take your pick. That’s no help at all!

      For everything other than days of the week, Oxford insists “next” means the nearest future one. Yet I’ve heard US-born speakers, speaking of freeway exits and various other things, define “next” as second-down-the-line (just like my Persian pal).

      Another timely example: When is our “next” US Presidential election? Most Americans, I suppose, would agree it’s in November 2016. But suppose on November 7, with that election scheduled for the following day, I refer to our “next” election. I promise you lots of people would then assume I’m referring to the 2020 election. They’d figure if I meant 2016, I’d have called it “this” election. (As well I might.) My question to them would be: When does “next” stop referring to 2016, and start meaning 2020? We don’t have any consistent rule for this! It’s just one of the many weird holes in the fabric of English.

  2. Hah! I have been corrupted by American English where there is a disntinction between this and next. In the English I was taught (by British ex-pats, in my very early school years) next simply meant the one coming up. Next as opposed to past. Now, after having lived with my wife for a decade, her usage has influenced and confused me! I say next, she understands next after this! So I modify. I do it enough number of times and it becomes my own standard…
    I think one way to overcome this is to see how much time has passed between the previous occurrence and the one coming up.

    Let’s see what happens in the next in line situation. The man/woman at the counter yells next, and it’s you. But the moment you take a step forward, you are no longer the “next”. You are current. If the same person behind the counter says next AGAIN, after you have taken that first step, it no longer means you!! You still may not have arrived at the counter, you may be another nine steps away. But that first step removes you from the “next” position to the “current” position. It is easy to think of it as a computer program with what is called a pointer that points to the current location. And trust me, that is a very complicated screwy thing to contemplate and program. Especially, when you have an array of things.

    Anyway, given the above example, if you are just back from a weekend and you say next, it clearly means the one coming up. “This” means the past weekend, by proximity (this vs. that). Even though the weekend is over, its effects and memories may be current. Once you are past a certain point of the week, saying this to refer to the past weekend no longer makes sense because it is farther from you than the one coming up. How does this affect the this-next conundrum?
    Think of yourself as the person behind the counter and the weekend(s) are standing in line to come to you. On Monday, one weekend has just left the counter and another one is “next”. So next weekend can only mean the imminent one. At some point, may be Tuesday, may be Tuesday afternoon, or may be Wednesday, next weekend is no longer “next”. It has become current. How? Because at the same point in time, last weekend is too far to be referred to as “this”. It has simply become “last”, freeing up the “this”. This “this” marks the currency. Since it now points to the next weekend coming up, the next is no longer next, but the current or “this” weekend. And therefore the “next” pointer has to be moved to the one after this.
    Confused yet?

    It is all very easy for me to visualize and say this because as you know I suffer/enjoy a synesthesia called spatial sequence or time-space synesthesia. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/discoblog/2010/04/02/the-rare-humans-who-see-time-have-amazing-memories/#.VuK2UMfG5rY
    This helps me see time laid out in space. This whole time I could see the week (two weeks actually–I see a fortnight as an elliptical loop, the narrow ends are the weekends) laid out as I moved arrows, pointers and words around in my mind to label them.

    • The time-space synesthesia you experience absolutely astounds me, Dev. It’s almost like having a superpower. Reminds me of the TV show “Scorpion” (featuring a human calculator and a mechanical prodigy, as well as a computer genius and maybe others) and “Unforgettable” (the Poppy Montgomery show about a detective with eidetic memory).

      Maybe this series could use posts about words like synesthesia and eidetic …

  3. Dear Gary, I do have problem with it even now after being in this part of the world for over half a century. Another thing that confuses me is the time, for instance 1 of 7. If I hear 10 minutes to 7, or 6:50, I know the exact time. Lots of time I have to ask to make sure I understand. Oh well. It is your language and I am just using it, as Victor Brogan (not sure of the spelling) would say.
    Lovingly.
    Mahin, the confused

    • Well, Mahin, we are all equally confused. It isn’t you — it’s the weirdness and lack of logic built into English.

      Regarding “next”: This past Saturday I received an email from some political candidate, talking about the primary voting “next Tuesday”. At the time, that primary was just three days in the future — the nearest one ahead. The only way I knew that, though, was from reading and hearing the news. Otherwise that could have meant either the nearest Tuesday or the one after that. And the dictionary, as I’ve noted, allows both interpretations. It’s just crazy!

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