In a meeting this morning someone referred to something that would happen “next Friday.” Someone else corrected him: “You mean this Friday.” The first person looked a bit startled and a bit contrite and said quickly “Yeah, this Friday, the thirteenth.”

This is something that’s always bothered me, and I think it’s a structural problem. There is simply no way to know whether “next Friday” is meant to refer to the immediately following Friday or Friday of next week; I understand it as the former (and therefore was as taken aback as the first speaker by the correction), but obviously lots of people assume the latter. (The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for “last Monday.”) I had thought it was a problem specific to English, but I see the same thing happens in German (Google translation here), so I guess it’s just more evidence that language is irremediably sloppy.


  1. It’s starting to get me annoyed, this ‘next week, next Friday’ problem.

    Didn’t shorthand typists once learn handy, unambiguous little tags like ‘inst’ (for ‘the month we are in now’)?

    Can we restore those somehow? Retrieve them from our cultural memory banks?

  2. Logically, if the phrase “this Friday” always refers to the next upcoming Friday (four days later if it’s currently Monday, three days if it’s Tuesday, etc.), then “next Friday” should mean “the one after this Friday”, i.e. two Fridays from today.

    If the current day IS Friday, of course, “this Friday” refers to today (in an odd way), and “next Friday” would be in 7 days.

    Just my opinion. No clear-thinking person should use “this Friday” and “next Friday” interchangeably.

  3. Zoot Organizing Kit says

    I’ve never had a problem assimilating the parlance of “this friday / friday / last friday / next friday” et cetera– though there have been cases of ambiguity that had to be disambiguated by asking folks just what the heck they meant, quite often.

    It seems that parlances like “Last Monday, …” come up a lot when one could say “On Monday I did [x, y, z]” or “On Monday I saw [persons x, y, z]”– i.e., when using past tense specifies a particular Monday. I don’t intend to suggest this is of a different logical class than the “Friday” example, by using past tense (just in case using a different example is unnecessarily distracting).

    Two observations: (1) My pet peeve is the tendency for people to say (e.g.), “All politicians aren’t braying batards like Trent Lott,” when clearly they mean “Not all politicians are braying batards like Trent Lott.”

    I didn’t pick up this pet peeve in Logic 101, either.

    What’s wrong with me???

    (2) There’s a lot of play in the wheel of language. For folks who tout it as a magnificently powerful communication system, I’ll counter that its expressive capability doesn’t exclude sloppy thought, poor habits of followup (going along to get along) that lead to misunderstanding, et cetera. This is another way of calling attention to the importance of the extralinguistic to language in its natural habitat.

    I’ve been struck by how seamlessly I’ve been interpreted when I’ve had a sympathetic audience, and how jarringly innappropriately I’ve been interpreted when this hasn’t been the case. It is possibly to wilfully misinterpret anything someone says, if one has a strong enough motivation and a suitable imagination. The question arises of “What is communicated?” A large part of it is a function of what the listener wants to hear; in some cases this function is a logical identity.

    Under my randomly assigned moniker from UFO Breakfast,
    Zoot Organizing Kit

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