Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Recently, a reader pointed me to a post on The Repeal of Gravity Blog discussing the strangeness that can sometimes arise with expressions of relative dates (like “last Monday” or “last March”. He highlighted the troubles arising from using “last March” in April, which can often leave people wondering whether you mean the march that has just passed, or the previous one. Although I don’t have much to add to his discussion, it does remind me of an issue that often plagues my communication.

Nocturnolinguistics

I’m a bit of a night owl. It’s not at all unusual for me to be up and working, talking with friends online, or even posting on this site well after midnight, and often, that leaves me in an interesting situation linguistically.

Let’s say that it’s 1:30am on June 9th. I’m speaking with a friend online, and we decide that we’re going to make plans for 4:30pm on June 9th, the same day. Our plans are finalized, and finally, it’s time to say goodnight. So, not thinking, I say “OK, see you tomorrow at 4:30!”.

Often, my friend will just go along with it, confirm the time, and move on. However, I have some friends who are really tripped up by this. “Wait,” they’ll say, “We’ve got plans for 4:30pm today, right? We said the 9th, not the 10th.” After a bit of clarifying chat, all is well, but these minor miscommunications seem to highlight an interesting difference in perspective among different people.

For me (and some other people I talk with), “today” is defined by sleep. I think that “today”, means, roughly, “between now and when I go to sleep for the night”. As you would expect, “tomorrow” then refers to “after I’ve gone to sleep and gotten back up, but before I go back to sleep the next night”. Sounds a bit complicated, but it seems to work in practice.

Until I’ve woken up on the day of the event, it’s not “today” yet. Thus, if I’m still up at 3:30am and I’ve got a meeting at noon, that meeting is still “tomorrow” to me, as I’m planning to sleep before that meeting starts. However, if it’s 3:30am, and I’ve already slept for the night and just got up early, a noon meeting becomes “today”. This is a very relative sort of system, and although it works fine for me, it does seem to confuse some of my friends.

For other people, “tomorrow” is, quite literally, “the day that follows this one on the calendar”. So, the moment the clock strikes midnight, yesterday’s tomorrow becomes today, and today’s tomorrow is yesterday’s “day after tomorrow” (I love that sentence).

So, for these people, if a meeting happens in the same calendar day, it’s “today”. Even if they’re still awake from the prior day and it’s only 12:01am, a meeting at noon is “today”. These people will dutifully make the switch at midnight, and doing so seems perfectly natural.

With these two ways of looking at the usage of “today” and “tomorrow”, it can sometimes be difficult to bridge the gap, especially when you’re not sure what system the person you’re talking to prefers, but there are definitely ways around it.

As before, let’s say it’s 1:30am on Monday, June 9th, and I’m confirming an appointment at 4:30pm on Monday, June 9th. The absolute safest way to express it would be with a qualifying statement, for example, “I’ll see you today, June 9th, at 4:30pm”. However, this can be a bit official or stodgy sounding. Another way to get around the ambiguity would be to say “I’ll see you in 15 hours, at 4:30pm.” The most common phrasing I use is something like “I’ll see you tomorrow/today at 4:30pm”.

A Call to Comments

Even though there are ways around this ambiguity, the fact that people seem to use “today” and “tomorrow” differently is very interesting to me. Calling on the wonderful interactive power of the internet, I’d really appreciate if some readers would let me know which usages of “tomorrow” and “today” they tend to use in the wee hours of the morning, and whether that’s the same in any other languages they might speak. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and I’m wondering how widespread these usages are.

So, please, leave your comments. Although I’ll be off to bed shortly, rest assured, I’ll have a look at them tomorrow morning… err, today? In 9 hours? Oh, screw it, I’ll just look at them Saturday. It’s much clearer that way.

Ahh, the joys of Linguistically Justified procrastination.


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