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When ‘next’ is really ‘last’

Q: Seen in the NY Times the other day: “And then there are the voice-overs, each more overwrought than the next.” Isn’t it supposed to be “each more overwrought than the last”? I see this a lot these days.

A: Yes, we’ve noticed this usage too. That dance critic, in reviewing a Netflix series about a fictional ballet school, should have written “than the last,” not “than the next.” She meant that each successive voice-over was more overwrought than the previous one, but she ended up saying the opposite.

Of course, no reader would misunderstand her. Our minds tend to make allowances for small lapses in logic, especially with a familiar idiomatic usage like “each more [better, larger, etc.] than the last.” When someone mistakenly uses “next” instead of “last,” we may not even notice the error, simply because our brains have translated and moved on.

This particular lapse is fairly common, not just in ordinary speech but in writing that’s been edited for publication. Here’s an example from speech: “The wild card is that every day is crazier than the next, and there is no roadmap here” (a banking executive on CNBC, March 17, 2020).

And here’s one from a scientific paper on reproductive patterns of steelhead trout: “For males and females, we found that each subsequent age class is both longer and heavier than the next.” (Graphs and tables show the opposite). From “Life History Variation Is Maintained by Fitness Trade-offs and Negative Frequency-Dependent Selection,” by Mark R. Christie et al., in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 24, 2018.

Several years ago a contributor to the Language Log reduced this problem to a formula: “Each one was more [adjective] than the next.” As he explained, “The speaker means that the phenomenon was growing, but is saying that it was decreasing” (Feb. 24, 2011).

Of course this formula isn’t always wrong. A literal interpretation can be the right one if the phenomenon is lessening instead of growing. Here’s an example from a book: “the first time you taste a new gourmet entrée will always be slightly better than the next time” (The 8-Hour Diet, 2013, by Peter Moore and David Zinczenko).

And the formula can be correct if “next” doesn’t mean following in sequence, but instead describes a hypothetical someone who’s typical or average: “Harvard Business School kind of opened my eyes that no one’s really smarter than the next person” (Jon Peloton quoted in Time, May 26, 2020) … “I like data as much as, or probably more than, the next guy” (Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times, Sept. 7, 2020).

Used in that sense, “the next man” means “the average man” or “a typical person,” or “anybody else,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. This usage, which originated in the US in the mid-19th century, is found “only in comparisons,” the OED adds, and occurs “frequently in the formula as —— as the next man (also person, etc.) according to context.”

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