Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where I wish I had been this weekend

When uttered on a Tuesday, what does "this weekend" mean? It's intriguingly ambiguous! With the help of verb tense, it's obvious in the case of the entry title that I'm referring to the weekend just past, June 20-21. But if I said, "I'm going to a reptile show this weekend," I would just as obviously be referring to the future weekend, June 27-28.

So we can all agree that verb tense clears up the ambiguity. Then we introduce the phrase "next weekend" and throw everyone for a loop. If "this weekend" refers to June 27-28 then "next weekend" must logically refer to July 4-5. Right? However, "next weekend" can also be used to mean "this weekend," and different people will use it that way on different days of the week.

Don't believe me? Bring it up with friends and family and brace yourself a really rousing quarrel! But wait, before you do, let me actually tell you where I wish I was this past weekend (note the clever addition of a modifier for extra clarity and verbosity!):

TONMOCON III. That is a conference about cephalopods. Need I say more? Okay, a little more: Tonmo.com is "committed to being the best resource available for all things cephalopod" and that is really all you need to know about it.

TONMOCON III was in my very own hometown, and my very own friends and co-workers were among those giving talks. But I, the cephalopodiatrist, was not in attendance. Shame! Sorrow! Regret! Instead, I was in San Diego, sorting plankton. And that is what I will continue to be doing for most of the summer. I am a plankton-sorting beast. Of which--more to come soon, in another blog post.

Anyway, I missed Tonmocon, and I have never been to a Tonmocon, and this year it was so close and yet so far, and next year it will probably be in some awful place like Chicago. (Just kidding! I love you Chicago! And your deadly temperature extremes!) So this is a lame post about how I am sad I wasn't there.

But, I also wanted to say that my labmate and sometime arch-nemesis did make an appearance; in fact he performed a Humboldt squid dissection. I can only imagine that this was the highlight of the whole weekend. Especially for the two kids who were there; one went home with the beak and the other with the pen and a cup full of ink. (The "pen" of a squid is a stiff internal rod that gives its body shape, unlike the amorphous blob that is an octopus. It is believed to be a vestigial shell. The ink, of course, is used by the squid for defense and by schoolchildren for awkwardly writing their names on "I Dissected A Squid" certificates.)

The dissection was supposed to be webcast live, which didn't work, but when they post it online, I'll try to remember to link it here.

Maybe next weekend.


  1. "This weekend" means the current weekend if it is already Saturday or Sunday. On all other days it is synonymous with "next weekend", as unless otherwise stated, "next" is relative to today's date.
    The subsequent weekend is "the weekend after next", and beyond that it usually becomes necessary to resort to a calendar.
    "THE next weekend", on the other hand, refers to the nearest weekend after some weekend already contained within the current lexical scope. That weekend may be a weekend far in the future.
    As the exception that proves the rule you might encounter, "Are you busy this weekend? What about next weekend?" Technically this is nonsense, but that is precisely what causes our internal parser to insert silently the missing 'the' and restore the sense of the question. Perhaps this is the source of the confusion over next weekend's meaning.
    You can not do the same trick with weekends more distant. In those cases, omitting the 'the' will cause next weekend to snap back to its true meaning. For example, "Are you busy the first weekend in January? How about next weekend?"

  2. These assertions make perfect sense to me if I assume you're only talking about statements in the present or future tense. I don't suppose you would argue that "this weekend" is synonymous with "next weekend" in past-tense statements, such as the entry title?
    I'm not sure I buy your argument that "Are you busy this weekend? What about next weekend?" is nonsensical unless we assume a missing definite article. Context-dependent word definitions seem like an equally plausible explanation for the sentence. Here's another post on the topic; curiously enough the first commenter has linguistic opinions very similar to yours. Do you know Doug L? Maybe he's Australian!
    Actually, it would be really interesting if this turns out to be an issue unique to American English . . .


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