Which Tuesday Is Next Tuesday?

 

Here are two words that make a lot of mischief: next and last.

We will be there next Tuesday.

The event took place last March.

If you’re speaking on a Wednesday, does “next Tuesday” mean six days in the future? That is, the Tuesday nearest on the horizon? If so,  what if you’re speaking on a Monday? What, then, does “next Tuesday” mean? One day from now or eight days from now?

As for “last March,” people often use it to mean the most recent March. Others use it to mean the March prior to that.

So what’s right? Well, it doesn’t seem there is a right. The situation is a mess.

“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 Barbara Wallraff in Word Court.

Wallraff has a helpful take on the matter, though I think mine, which I’ll get to later, is even more helpful. Here’s Wallraff on structures like "next Thursday."

“The  ‘next’ in the phrase typically [refers] to next week. Never, not even on Wednesday, is ‘next Thursday’ tomorrow.”

Basically, she argues, “next” usually means in the following week.

This problem doesn't bother me because I just adhere to some common newspaper guidelines. In a newspaper, there is no next Tuesday or last March. The Tuesday following the publication date is just Tuesday. The Tuesday after that is identified by the date -- not the day of the week. “Performances will take place on Tuesday and on May 21.” We would write it that way even if those two performances are exactly a week apart.

Same idea for last. An event that occurred in a March less than 12 months ago occurred not “last March” but just "in March.” If it happened the March prior, it happened “March 2012” or whatever year applies.

“The political showdown that occurred in March was reminiscent of the events of March 2012.”

An event that will occur in the coming March is not “next March.” It’s just March. “The president is scheduled to visit the Middle East in March.” If it’s more than 12 months away, you mention the year. “The president is scheduled to visit the Middle East in March 2015.”

Dropping “next” and “last” altogether seems the only surefire way to make your meaning clear.

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