A Word, Please: When a day of the week is next or last

Dentistry student Somkene Okwuego, 23, makes a crown during a dentistry class.
Dentistry student Somkene Okwuego, 23, makes a crown during a dentistry class at Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC on June 1. Grammar expert June Casagrande attempts to answer whether the coming Thursday is next Thursday, this Thursday or just Thursday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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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.

Grammar expert June Casagrande writes what some contrarians believe is a mistake might be the correct choice of word.

Oct. 3, 2023

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 the language guides in my library. Most contain no entry for “next” or “last.” The handful that discuss “last” mostly just talk about how to distinguish it from “latest.”

For example, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says: “Some usage writers make the distinction that ‘last’ means ‘final’ and ‘latest’ means ‘most recent.’ Other writers admit that both words can mean ‘most recent’ but insist that only ‘latest’ conveys this meaning unambiguously.”

Merriam’s says that this distinction is usually unnecessary because in most cases the meaning is already clear. “Of course, there may be times when, with no help from the larger context, you must make it clear that something is the final one of a series and not just the most recent. In such a case you can simply use ‘final’ or you can expand the immediate context and say, for example, ‘the last book she wrote before she died.’”

But for help knowing which Tuesday is next Tuesday, most of my usage books are useless. Even dictionaries are no help, giving only general definitions for “next” and “last” that contain no clue about how they apply to weeks and months.

The only guide in my library that offers help on “last” and “next” is the Associated Press Stylebook. “Use Monday, Tuesday, etc., for days of the week within seven days before or after the current date,” AP advises. “Avoid such redundancies as ‘last Tuesday’ or ‘next Tuesday.’ The past, present or future tense used for the verb usually provides adequate indication of which Tuesday is meant: He said he finished the job Tuesday. She will return Tuesday.”

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Language You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at