Etymology Usage

Next question, please!

Q: What is the proper use of the word “next”? It’s my understanding that “next item” and “next two items” are correct, but “next items” is wrong. Also, what are the best references I can get to answer usage questions like this one?

A: We can’t find any prohibitions against constructions like “The next days were nightmarish,” or “We skipped the next courses” or “The next chapters were hair-raising.”

The word “next” doesn’t always mean the single thing or person in immediate succession. It’s often used with a plural noun.

Normally, phrases with “next” plus a plural noun are further modified with words like “two” or “few” or “several.”

However, we don’t see anything wrong with omitting these extra modifiers if preciseness isn’t important and the meaning is clear in context.

For example: “The views were good in rows one and two, but rotten in the next rows.”

A check of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary seems to support this view. “Next” before an unmodified plural noun can often be found in old writings where, for example, “next” means “lying nearest in place or position.” 

Here’s a biblical quotation from 1384: “Go we in to the nexte townes and citees.” And John Bellenden’s 1533 translation of  Livy’s History of Rome has the phrase: “the nixt montanis” (“the next mountains”).

There are also many historical references in which “next” means simply nearby or close: “next men,”  “next inhabiters,”  “next enemies,” “next friends,” “next dwellers,” and so on.

So much for correctness and historical precedent.

In some cases, though, a phrase like “the next days” or “the next chapters” will make the reader or listener ask, “The next how many?” So an extra modifier might be a welcome addition.

As for your other question, you might try Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. It’s in paperback, and well worth having. The OED is also wonderful, but a yearly subscription to the online edition is pretty expensive.

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