Which Thursday is next Thursday?

If it’s Wednesday and you went to the dentist six days ago, did you go last Thursday? Or just Thursday? What if your appointment is six days in the future? Would you say you’re going next Tuesday? And if you’re talking in October about your appointment 11 months ago, would you say that was last November?

Now imagine you’re the listener, not the speaker. If your friend says in October she went to the dentist last November, would you assume it was 11 months prior or 23 months prior? And if she says she has an appointment next Tuesday, would you assume that’s the nearest Tuesday or the one after that?

The words “next” and “last” are trouble. Consider this reader email sent to longtime Atlantic and Boston Globe language columnist Barbara Wallraff and published in her 2002 book “Word Court”: “I am writing this note on a Wednesday. In my mind, next Tuesday is six days away and next Thursday is eight days away. To my wife, next Thursday is tomorrow.”

Before I saw this, I figured there were two ways to interpret “next” when it modifies a day of the week. Either it means the day soonest to come, which would mean that 24 hours after Wednesday is indeed next Thursday, or it means the one after that — that on Wednesday, tomorrow is this Thursday, six days in the future is this Tuesday and in 13 days comes next Tuesday. But this Wallraff reader apparently had a third take: “next” means a day that follows the beginning of a new week, presumably on Sunday.

So what’s right? What do “next” and “last” mean in these contexts? The answer, I regret to inform you, is that there is no answer.

“In ‘next’ I think I detect the handiwork of the same folks who decided that Sunday should be not only the first day of the week but also half of the week end,” writes Wallraff, who acknowledges there’s no clear rule. She recommends this way of looking at it: “The ‘next’ in the phrase typically [refers] to next week. Never, not even on Wednesday, is ‘next Thursday’ tomorrow.”

For all the trouble these words cause, there’s a surprising shortage of help to be found in language guides. So it took a bit of research to come up with this guidance in my recent column.

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