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A language problem: the word last.

Recently, I have been engaged in a discussion with a friend about the way the word ‘last’ is employed in time and date phrases.

Though a very common word and not one you would normally dwell on for long, the word ‘last’ is important because it can give rise to confusion and misunderstanding. The simple dictionary definition of ‘last’ is ‘coming after all others in time or order, most recent in time, latest.’ As an adverb, ‘last’ means ‘on the last occasion before the present, previously.’ These are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

The Collins English Dictionary has a fuller and more helpful entry: ‘last 1: being, happening, or coming at the end or after all the others 2: being or occurring just before the present; most recent: last Thursday.’ What is of particular interest is the usage note appended to the end of the definition: ‘since last can mean either after all the others or most recent, it is better to avoid using this word when ambiguity might arise, as in ‘her last novel.’ Final or latest should be used.’

This usage note will bedevil the discussion below and ways of avoiding ambiguity will be suggested. It may seem odd that such a common word can generate so much discussion.

The problem arises when we say, ‘last Tuesday.’ Do we mean the Tuesday just past or the Tuesday of the previous week? The time reference becomes clear if we look at the phrase from the perspective of the present. If the statement is made on a Friday, then ‘last Tuesday’ would usually refer to the Tuesday of the previous week (i.e. the most recent Tuesday before the one just passed)-in keeping with the dictionary definition. If you want to refer to the Tuesday of the same week, then you would usually say, ‘this Tuesday.’

Past and future references are made clear in the following examples:
This Friday is the Friday of this week, next Friday is the Friday of next week, and last Friday is the Friday of last week.

Three more examples will help to clarify the time references:
The competition starts this Sunday
The book will be published next Thursday
We made the reservation last Monday

If it’s Monday and you say ‘last Tuesday’, you would be understood to refer to the Tuesday of the previous week. The reference of the phrase (last Monday, last Tuesday, etc) is not immediately clear unless we know the speaker’s current position within the span of any one week.

One way of avoiding ambiguity would be to stop using ‘last’ unless the time reference is absolutely clear. We could say, speaking on a Friday, ‘I saw him on Tuesday.’ The speaker here clearly refers to the Tuesday of the same week. The reference here is to a Tuesday which is already in the past (but the most recent past).

However, if again you are speaking on a Friday and say, ‘I’ll see him on Tuesday’, the context, with the verb in the future tense (I will see him), leaves no room for ambiguity or doubt. You will see your friend on the Tuesday of the following week.

A similar problem arises with time references which include months and years. If you make a remark in December, 1990, ‘He died last February’ you would normally be understood to mean February, 1990. If the person died in February, 1989, then we would have said, ‘He died in February of last year.’

The tense of the verb is always a sure guide to the week, month or year we are talking about; it removes ambiguity and anchors the statement unequivocally in the stream of time. If you are speaking on Monday and you say, ‘he worked hard on Friday’ or ‘he worked hard last Friday’ surely the meaning is the same: the tense clearly refers to the Friday of the previous week.

A statement made on Friday, ‘he worked hard on Tuesday’ refers to the Tuesday of the same week.

If the word ‘last’ is surrounded by a time-specific context, then ambiguity is usually avoided. If asked ‘When did you last see him?’ on Wednesday and you answered ‘Last Tuesday’, you would be referring to the Tuesday of the previous week as Tuesday by itself or yesterday would mean the speaker was referring to the previous day.

The use of ‘last’ is governed by the constraints placed on deictic utterances. Deixis is a grammatical category involving direct reference to the characteristics of the situation where the utterance takes place. The meaning of a deictic phrase or utterance is relative to the situation in which it is used or said.

For example, the interpretation of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ varies, depending on who is doing the talking and who is being addressed. The location of the speaker in time and place governs the interpretation of certain temporal and spatial adverbs, such as ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘here’, and ‘there.’ As the examples used above show, ‘last’ falls into this category.