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What does 'next' actually mean? Is 'next' Monday tomorrow or 8 days away?

A listener named Toby recently wrote to us with the story of a first date that almost didn't happen.

He tells us that a mutual friend put him in touch with a woman named Phyllis. Toby gave Phyllis a call on a Thursday and the two made plans to go out for dinner "next Sunday."

"In my mind, 'next Sunday' meant a week from the following Sunday, since the earlier Sunday would've been 'this' Sunday," Toby said. 

A few days later, Toby got a call from Phyllis, who wanted to know why he hadn't come by to pick her up.

"In Phyllis' mind, I meant this coming Sunday. Needless to say, she was all ready for me to pick her up on that earlier Sunday. After my no-show, and much to my future good fortune, she phoned me to ask what had happened," he said.

Luckily, there's a happy ending to this story. Toby and Phyllis did end up going out on a date and are now married.

We've got to ask though, if it's Thursday and someone tells you, "See you next Sunday," does that mean you'll see them in three days, or does it mean you'll see them in 10 days?

Unfortunately, we don't have a great answer for this one. Usage guides say "next" is ambiguous, and there are people who would agree with Toby and others who would agree with Phyllis.

What's interesting though, is that it's not ambiguous when you're less specific.

For example, if someone tells you, "On Monday I bought a new shirt, but I returned it the next day," you'd assume they returned the shirt on Tuesday. Or if someone says, "Next month I'm taking a trip to Europe," that means they're going to Europe in March 2017

Naming the specific day or month is where things get confusing, and you end up with a situation like the one Toby and Phyllis found themselves in. 

What do you think, does "next June" mean June 2017 or June 2018? If it's February 5, does "next Friday" mean February 10 or February 17?

In other words, are you Team Toby or Team Phyllis? Tell us at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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