Q: I make a daily stop in Dunkin’ Donuts and one clerk, when she’s finished with a customer and wants to get the attention of the next one, loudly states: “Following customer, please.” This makes me cringe. I’ve chosen not to correct her, though, fearing for my daily latte. Is this phrase being used correctly?
A: You aren’t the first to raise this question (many bank tellers and postal clerks, I’m told, also make a practice of referring to the “following” person). I can’t account for the practice, except to guess that the clerks may think it’s inelegant to speak of each subsequent customer as the “next” one in line.
I don’t especially like this usage, but it’s not grammatically wrong. The word “following” has been used as an adjective meaning next in order or coming after since around 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Living Carcasses design’d / For death, the following day, in bloodie fight.”
To call someone “the following customer,” however, raises questions: Following whom? Or what? By the time the person reaches the front of the line, he’s no longer BEHIND anybody. Any usage that makes an ordinary, intelligent person look around and scratch her head in wonder has something wrong with it.
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