Q: I hope you can help me settle a dispute with my spouse! If today is Sunday, when is next Monday? Is it tomorrow, or is it Monday of next week? And what about last May? Is it the preceding month or May of the previous year?
A: There’s no good answer here. “Next” and “last” are often ambiguous words. You and your spouse aren’t the only ones at odds over these words. In fact, the two of us have very similar arguments!
For example, Stewart will say, “It happened last May,” even if he means the preceding month. But if Pat is speaking in June, she’ll say, “It happened in May.” To her, “last May” sounds like May of last year.
And Stewart will say “next Monday” when that’s only a day from now. Pat, on the other hand, will use “next Monday” to mean Monday of the following week, and “this Monday” to mean tomorrow.
Because there’s room for disagreement, it’s better to avoid using “next” and “last” when you’re talking about dates that are not far away.
“Last May” or “next Monday” are safe enough when they’re at a distance. But the closer the date, the greater the chance of a misunderstanding.
Just as “next door” is often broadly construed as meaning “nearby,” so “next Thursday,” when there’s a Thursday very close, is sometimes construed as meaning “the Thursday after this one.”
The word “next” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “designating the time, season, etc., following directly after one described, spoken of, etc.”
But what if there’s been no hint of “one described, spoken of, etc.”? Say, for example, that Stewart says, “Let’s go out for dinner next Monday.” Does he mean tomorrow, or Monday of next week?
After 22 years of marriage, Pat knows that he means “this Monday” (he wouldn’t think about dinner a week ahead).
Your question reminds us of one we answered last year, about whether moving an event “forward” means it will happen earlier or later.