Thursday, July 21, 2011

Next July, Last Friday, This Tuesday

So after months of not blogging anything technical, I'm going to blog something non-technical. Hopefully tech posts will pick up soon once my new baby boy Elliott is a bit older and less needy :)

When Is "This Friday"?

The most confusing time-oriented statements (for me) are when people use "this", "next", and "last" to describe a specific day or month. Some people consider "this" to always be the day/month coming soon", and others have different meanings. This short post will describe what I mean, in a way that hopefully convinces you to do the same.

If we look at what "this", "next", and "last" are modifying, a simple pattern emerges. For days of the week, they're indicating what week contains the given day. "This week" means the week we're in right now, "next week" means the week that follows this one, and "last week" means the week that preceded this one. Taking that to days of the week, then, "this Friday" should always mean "Friday of this week". Similarly, when those modifiers are applied to a month, they usually mean what year contains the given month. "This August" would mean the August of this year, and so on.

There's no perfect way to interpret these modifiers, and even my system has some mildly confusing points.

Let's say today is Thursday. The following day is "this Friday", as you'd expect. A week from tomorrow would be "next Friday", the Friday of next week...not tomorrow, even though that's the Friday that comes "next" in time. Perhaps a bit more confusing is using "this" to describe days in the past; "this Wednesday" would mean the day before today, since that's the Wednesday of this week. A proper sentence would be "this Wednesday I went to the store." Note the past-tense there.

Sunday and Saturday are peculiarities too, and in almost any system they are the source of the most confusion. By my system, "this Sunday" would almost always mean a day in the past, since that's the Sunday of this week (and it would be weird to say "this Sunday" on Sunday). Similarly, "next Saturday" will almost always mean two Saturdays from now.

Confusion about days in the past or in the future can be avoided with additional modifiers "coming" and "past". "This past Saturday" always means the Saturday nearest in the past, and "this coming Sunday" always means the next Sunday in the future. My system is not ambiguous, but adding these additional modifiers can help smooth over places where it might confuse folks unfamiliar with it.

One alternative would be to always have "this" mean the day/month next in time, "next" to always mean the one after that, and "last" to be the one nearest in the past. But that ends up ambiguous, since if tomorrow is Friday it's unclear if "next Friday" is tomorrow or the Friday of next week.

So, what do you think? Does this system make sense? Is there a better way to disambiguate these modifiers?