The Perils of “This Week” and “Next Week”

Sometimes Chinese seems to warp the fabric of space-time. It’s true; culture can warp our perception of reality with Sapir-Whorfian aplomb. I exaggerate, though; I’m talking about interpretations of the phrase “this week.”

At the crux of the matter is the fact that the Western American week starts on Sunday (星期天), whereas the Chinese week starts on Monday (星期一). Most of the time this causes no problems… Unless you’re trying to make plans for the next 7 days on a Sunday. This is such a simple matter; it shouldn’t be so confusing. But if you forget that this discrepancy exists, misunderstandings abound. It’s embarrassing, but I admit: even after all this time in China, if I’m careless in my thinking, I still make this mistake occasionally. (The key is that one doesn’t often make plans for the coming week on a Sunday.)

Here are some diagrams to make the issue clearer:

Understanding "next week" in English

Understanding "next week" in Chinese

So, in the examples above, if I say “这个星期三” on a Sunday, thinking I’m referring to the coming Wednesday (May 9th), I’m actually referring to the past Wednesday (May 2nd).

OK, now here’s the annoying part (for us native speakers of American English): the Chinese way is more logical. Here’s how it works:

  1. If you refer to any day of last week (even if it’s yesterday, technically), you use 上个.

  2. If you refer to any day of this week (Monday through Sunday, even days already past), you use 这个. It just means, strictly, “of this week.” No ambiguity.

  3. If you refer to any day of next week (even if it’s tomorrow, technically), you use 下个.

As long as you remember that the week starts on Monday and not Sunday, it’s all very consistent and logical. The reason this is confusing to non-native speakers like me is that the system that we use in American English is kind of a mess. I hear that many British speakers follow rules that are basically the same as the Chinese ones, but I know from experience that the system used in the USA is much more muddled (examples here, here, and here).

OK, it’s not actually that hard. I’m not trying to add a new item to “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” But it’s a pretty bewildering experience when it happens to you the first time. The joys of intercultural exchange!

Update: In the original post I said “Western” when I should have said “American.” Apologies for the inaccuracies. The point of the post still holds true (particularly for us Americans).

32 Comments to “The Perils of “This Week” and “Next Week”

  1. John B says:

    I was always under the impression that the Sunday week start was an American thing, and that Europeans (and basically the rest of the world) started weeks on Monday…

    • Max says:

      Came here to say that. In Germany at least the week starts on Monday.

      • Kevin says:

        I also came to make the same reply (I’m English). I wasn’t even aware that there was any other system until I started interacting with more Americans after coming to China. I’ve also lived in Belgium, which uses the same system as the UK and China.

        I think this is a case of America vs the rest of the world, not China vs the West

      • Jean says:

        Same in France

    • Hans says:

      Same here, I thought most of Europe (at least) starts with Monday too. But maybe old world’s not western enough for Americans.

    • Daan says:

      Yes, same in the Netherlands. I was actually surprised to see this post, never realised the week starts on Sunday across the pond :)

    • Joe says:

      In Spain it also starts Monday. It can be very confusing for an American traveling to other countries, and this is exactly the kind of cultural difference that is subtle yet important, the kind that often is not taught in a class or in books.

    • dw says:

      This is one of many situations where the US is more old-fashioned (and possibly more religious) than contemporary Europe.

      In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the first day of the week has traditionally been Sunday. This is evidenced in the many places in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures where “the seventh day” refers to Saturday, and “the first day” to Sunday. It’s still evident in the names of the days in contemporary languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Persian and Portuguese.

      The major exception to this is the Slavic languages, which have always counted Monday as the first day. The Slavic system has spread to Hungarian, Finnish and the Baltic languages.

      Relatively recently, the concept of Monday as the first day of the week has been spreading in Western Europe. It’s probably the result of secularization, together with the two-day “weekend” (perhaps conceived literally as “the end of the week”).

      I grew up in the UK in the 1980s, and always thought of Sunday as the first day of the week, although I was aware that it was a debated subject. Then again, I was a churchgoing choir-boy at the time (I’m not any more).

      Wikipedia, needless to say, has more information.

    • My initial research into the matter was somewhat inconclusive, but I think it’s pretty clear now that I should have said “American” rather than Western. Text updated, and image update to follow shortly.

    • Hi, I am David from http://www.chineseleap.com; I am Chinese, it is true that the system of ‘这周‘ or ‘本周‘ could be sometime confusing. I believe it does not only happen with Chinese. Actually, when there is a potential confusing situation in this regard, the best solution is to make a complementary explaination, like ” I mean the week just passed’ or ” I mean the next week’.

  2. Superangel says:

    Yeah, sorry John, good article, but Monday is very commonly considered the start of the week throughout Europe (even the UK & Ireland). Businesses and schools are all orientated around this idea and ISO-8601 also supports Monday as the beginning of the (work) week.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workweek_and_weekend

  3. Interesting. I never had this problem. I am used to thinking that week starts on Monday. It starts on Monday in Russia.

  4. Tore says:

    Sweden switched from Sunday to Monday from January 1st 1973, to comply with the international standard ISO8601. I remember looking at my grandmothers old almanacs, marvelling over this change. Here in Japan, in a typically Japanese fashion, there is no clear consensus of when the week starts. Checking with three coworkers, one was pro-Sunday, one pro-Monday, and one thought that it was probably Sunday but he used Monday mentally….

  5. rgove says:

    +1 for s/Western/American/ and s/English/American English/

  6. Sima says:

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with Kevin…kind of. My early education was in a church-run school in England, and there I learnt that the week really began on Sunday, contrary to the view held by some in the world outside the classroom.

    These matters are further complicated by our flexible use of these terms. If it was a Tuesday and you said, “…next Wednesday”, I imagine you wouldn’t be talking about tomorrow, but would be referring to eight days in the future.

    Aren’t these things generally imprecise in both English and Chinese? If you said, “Turn left at the next set of lights,” in English or Chinese, as you approached a junction, the driver might have to check whether you meant the lights close ahead or those also visible ahead, one block further on. Whilst one might clarify by saying, “the next-but-one set of lights”, I’d have thought, “No. Not these lights; the next set.” would be a pretty normal expression. Might our understanding of ‘the next junction’ depend on how far we were from the junction and whether we’d already joined the line of slow-moving or stationary cars close to said junction?

    Perhaps my contact with two views of the start of the week has left me badly scarred, but I seriously doubt I could even be confident of the meaning of “next week,” even when talking on a Saturday. This might be because the previous working week has already finished, or it might be that as we approach the beginning of a new period, event or location, it’s acceptable to talk about it as the current one. That which is imminent is as good as already here. Or as I approach a boundary, I can consider myself as having as good as crossed it.

    • Peter Nelson says:

      I have to agree that the issue already exists when speaking in English. To be honest, I’m not even sure what rules I go by.

  7. Mike says:

    I’m British and also go by the week starting on Monday. In addition, I also use ‘next Wednesday’ and ‘this Wednesday’ interchangeably to refer to the same day if I’m saying it on Thursday or later of the current week so long as I’m talking in the future tense.

  8. Arnaud says:

    I am always having this problem with my girlfriend. She is Taiwanese and I am French. In France our week starts on Monday so that should not be a problem but we still always get it wrong

  9. Ben says:

    Quite absent from second-language issues, the this/next thing has always confused me, and especially back when I was a kid. For me, “next” was always, well, the next instance of whatever was being talked about. So if today is Monday, then the coming Saturday would be “next Saturday” for me. “It’s next to me”, as in, no other Saturday in the future is closer.

    Also, yes, weeks start on Monday. :) It’s the first day of the week after all.

  10. Tuk says:

    I have always been confused by this in English. Chinese system is much easier.

    If today is Friday the 13th, what is Wednesday the 18th? I would say “this Wednesday” because in England at least we have a habit of saying “this coming Wednesday”. Would this be “next Wednesday” in the US?

  11. Margaret says:

    Can confirm the week starts on Monday in the UK, and add Germany. Thank goodness my iCal starts on Monday too!

  12. Jason 戈 says:

    I can confirm that the system in the US (or in my case Canada) is more muddled.

    What exactly “Next Friday” and “This Friday” means when today is a Monday for example is always problematic. Funny though I haven’t yet noticed this discrepancy when speaking Chinese. Now I will keep it in mind though.

  13. dw says:

    This is one of many situations where the US is more old-fashioned (and possibly more religious) than contemporary Europe. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the first day of the week has traditionally been Sunday. This is evidenced in the many places in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures where “the seventh day” refers to Saturday, and “the first day” to Sunday. It’s still evident in the names of the days in contemporary languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Persian and Portuguese.

    The major exception to this is the Slavic languages, which have always counted Monday as the first day. The Slavic system has spread to Hungarian, Finnish and the Baltic languages. Relatively recently, the concept of Monday as the first day of the week has been spreading in Western Europe. It’s probably the result of secularization, together with the two-day “weekend” (perhaps conceived literally as “the end of the week”). I grew up in the UK in the 1980s, and always thought of Sunday as the first day of the week, although I was aware that it was a debated subject. Then again, I was a churchgoing choir-boy at the time (I’m not any more).

    Wikipedia, needless to say, has more information (search for “numbered days of the week” — my link got held for moderation).

  14. Claude says:

    I think the way you put it is a bit troubling, because in Chinese they really say “3rd day last week”, “3rd day this week” or “3rd day next week” so the week issue is clear if you put it that way but if you compare to “last Wednesday” , “this Wednesday” and “next Wednesday” then there’s an issue as most of the people assume this to be independant of the week we stand now, plus “this Wednesday” and “next Wednesday” are the same day.

    Or may be it is just because I am French. Do American people would always consider “this Wednesday” to be “Wednesday next week” even if today is Tuesday, meaning we are talking about Wed in 8 days?

  15. Tony says:

    While I may be American, mentally I have always thought of Monday as the beginning of the week, despite our calendars and other devices always indicating Sunday. I was surprised when someone once pointed that out to me. However, I still keep Monday as my placeholder for the start of weeks, after all, we do call Saturday and Sunday the “weekend”.

  16. 天游仔 says:

    Great post! I understand the logic behind the Chinese way of thinking, but still am often baffled by the inflexibility of it. If I slip up and on a Sunday ask a friend: “Do you want to grab a meal together this Wednesday?” (你这个礼拜三要和我一起吃饭吗?)there are times when they take a minute or two to realize that I am indeed talking about the Wednesday that is yet to come.

  17. Ivan says:

    Dear John

    In my idiolect (British English, northern working class), “this XDay” has always meant “moving into the future, the first Xday you come across” and “next Xday” is the first one you come across after that.

    Probably we should all use the Chinese system.

    Ivan

    • Vedabit says:

      It’s the same in Indian English. “This Xday” is the one immediately in the future or immediately in the past, depending on the context.

      If today is a Wednesday, then “this Friday” is two days from now. “I’ll be travelling this Monday” is next week, while “I was travelling this Monday” was two days ago.

  18. Thon Brocket says:

    Saudis start the week on Saturday. But it doesn’t matter, really. They don’t do much any day of the week.

  19. Alan says:

    This is quite confusing to Chinese people as well. When we try to say, for example, next Wednesday, Chinese people tend to refer to the Wednesday that is coming, but American people tend to take it as the Wednesday AFTER the coming Wednesday.

    Anyway your way of seeing the differences between those two biggest languages are creative, that why I enjoy watching your posts! :)

  20. It’s strange to think that there can be such great differences in something as small as when a week is considered to start. In my old place of work our rotas always started on a Sunday as the beginning of the week. I’m not sure if that’s just the way they did it or if it is a more universal thing. Regardless, a very interesting article, thanks :)

Leave a Reply

Sinosplice and all material found herein © 2002-2014, John Pasden. All rights reserved.
Sinosplice is happily hosted by WebFaction. Design by Dao By Design