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?


  1. I think "this" by itself is quite vague. This coming Wednesday I will start using JRuby. This past Wednesday I used Groovy. I'm not much of a language person though.

  2. Scott: Agreed...I think "this" is perhaps the most confusing without any strict definition, since sometimes people mean "next", sometimes they mean "this week" and sometimes they mean "last time that day occurred." I like that my system specifies that "this" always means "this week" even if the day is in the past, and if you want to specify the other days using "this" you must add another modifier.

  3. Sounds like a good enough system to me. Actually, it's not about having a good system, it's just about having one, really.

  4. Hi

    I'm not an english speaker (my native languages are catalan and spanish, but learning english teachers always say that if it's Monday and you say next Wednesday it is your this Wednesday (the one contained in the current week).

    I thing you have the same problem as we have in catalan or spanish from different places.

    Kind regards


  5. gem install chronic ?

  6. Anonymous 1: I'm sure the problems of expressing relative time versus absolute time span languages. I know some of them dodge it a bit by having blurry notions of past or future (Chinese)...

    Anonymous 2: Actually that's an interesting point...I wonder what rules chronic uses for "next" and "last".

  7. same problem in the german language, same ambiguity. for me, "this" is the upcoming event, like "this thursday" is the upcoming thursday. "next" is the one after "this" one. and "last" is the first back in time.

    1. In Swedish we have basically the same problem. However, in the south of Sweden, mainly amongst the older generations, they have a way of modifying the statements if confusion can arise. Let's say it's currently Monday:

      Speaker A: - Next Saturday I will go to France.
      Speaker B: - Next Saturday? Do you mean this week, or the next week?
      Speaker A: - Oh, I mean Saturday eight-days.
      Speaker B: - I see, next week then.

      "Eight-days" means that it is at least eight days until that day comes, i.e. it is not the first coming Wednesday but the next one.

      The need to resolve the confusion seems to have been around for quite some time and in many languages...

  8. "this X"
    always means "this coming occurance of day=X"

    "next X"
    When the first occurance of X is 4 days or more away it means the same as "this X", otherwise it means "not this coming occurance of day=X, but the next one"

    "last X"
    when the last occurance of day X is 4 days or more away, it means "the last occurance of day=X"
    otherwise, it means "not the most recent occurance of X, but the one before that"