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In his book Write It Right, which was published in 1909 -– a hundred years ago -- Ambrose Bierce disagreed with the usage of the words “Last” and “Past” with “week”. He explained :

Last and Past. “Last week.” “The past week.” Neither is accurate: a week cannot be the last if another is already begun; and all weeks except this one are past. Here two wrongs seem to make a right: we can say the week last past. But will we? I trow not.

And H. W. Fowler agreed with those sentiments in his Fowler's Modern English Usage 1st Ed.

4. Last) (latest. In this now favourite antithesis (Dr Marshall's latest, but we hope not his last, contribution) we are reminded that latest means last up to now only, whereas last does not exclude the future. The distinction is a convenient one, & the use of latest for last is described by the OED as ' now archaic & poetical'. But no corresponding agreement has yet been reached for abstaining from last when latest would be the more precise word, & many idioms militate against it (last Tuesday; last year ; for the last fortnight; on the last occasion ; as I said in my last).

And his successor, R. W. Burchfield, also agreed, in New Folwer's Modern English Usage 3rd Ed.

4. Last/Latest. In such a context as “In his latest book, Dr. A…”, it is clear that Dr. A has written earlier books and that he is still alive and may well write others. If the statement runs “In his last book, Dr A…” the meaning could be the same, or it could also imply that this was the final book written by Dr A before he died. It is obvious, therefore, that if there is any danger of contextual ambiguity some word other than last should be used. In many idiomatic phrases last is still the only possible adj. of the two: = most recent; next before a specified time ( last Christmas; last week); = preceding; previous in a series ( got on at the last station); = only remaining ( the last biscuit; our last chance); ( preceded by the) = the least likely or suitable ( the last person I’d want to see; the last thing I’d have expected; = the lowest in order ( the last name on the list).

Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Ed described yester as:

yester-

in comb. or as prefix = immediately preceding the present, last, in yestereve, etc., after yesterday, yesternight; e.g. yester-afternoon, yester-age, yester-noon, yester-tempest, yester-week. See also yester-year.

Of course, I admit I've always thought that last week was the week before this.

So my question is: Do you think that use of the idiom last week has overpowered the correct usage "yester-week"?

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Since nobody says "yester-week" nowadays, I would say the answer is rather obvious. Am I missing something? –  RegDwigнt Jan 26 '11 at 16:58
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This does not seem like an answerable question, but an invitation to discussion. Clearly, nobody uses yester-week, and few are even aware it ever existed. I think this discussion is better suited for the EL&U Chat. –  Kosmonaut Jan 26 '11 at 17:26
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Some do say "this is I"; "yester-" is different. –  Cerberus Jan 26 '11 at 17:27
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Although not completely clear, this question is still a serious and answerable question: there was a situation x; did a situation y precede this? Is that what writers a, b, and c are observing?. The problem is mostly that the OP assumed a premise that isn't true, namely x. But adjusting premises is also part of the job... I vote to reopen. –  Cerberus Jan 26 '11 at 17:58
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After reading PLL's and Cerberus's answers and comments, I realised that my belief was indeed bulit on a false premise. Please pardon me on my ignorance and false belief. It's a really eye opener and I hope again hope if I ever come out with this kind of questions again you would able to clear my doubt and enlighten me. –  Mr.X Jan 27 '11 at 0:44

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Yes.

It’s very tempting to leave the answer at that, but… some more notes.

  1. The most cursory look at any newspaper, or around the blogosphere, confirms this answer. ‘Last week’ is common as muck, while ‘yester-week’ is virtually non-existent, and when it does appear, it’s for archaic effect.

  2. ‘Last week’ isn’t in any way incorrect. It’s had the meaning ‘most recent, latest’ for over 600 years: in 1411, for instance, the rolls of Parliament under Henry IV refer to “The last parlement…” (OED.)

  3. As your sources point out, however, ‘last’ can sometimes be ambiguous, and ‘latest’ is often a good alternative in those cases. Talking about ‘the latest week’ sounds odd and affected, just as it did when Fowler wrote; but talking about ‘Madonna’s latest single’ is perfectly fine.

  4. ‘Yester-’ isn’t actually as archaic as we tend to think! A few examples — ‘yesterday’, ‘yesternight’, ‘yester-eve’ — are old, but (according to the OED again) the general combining form (in eg ‘yester-week’) only really shows up in the 19th century. Amazingly, even good old ‘yester-year’ was apparently only coined in 1870, by Rosetti translating Villon: “Where are the snows of yester-year?”

  5. Finally, none of the sources you give support your implication that ‘yester-week’ is the correct usage that should be preferred to ‘last week’! The Bierce and Fowler quotes point out the illogic and occasional ambiguity of ‘last’ (note that neither of these makes it grammatically wrong); Fowler’s suggests ‘latest’ as a sometimes better alternative, but neither even mentions ‘yester-’! The OED simply points out that ‘yester-’ exists (at least, existed for a few decades) and means roughly the same thing.

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Excellent points. I suspect that "yester-year", if it was coined in 1870, was never anything but a jocular or affected word. Perhaps many more of the expressions that sound old now were never actually current. –  Cerberus Jan 26 '11 at 17:26
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@Cerberus: Indeed — given the subject-matter of the poem in question, I suspect Rosetti was already going for the archaic associations in coining ‘yester-year’, presumably thinking of ‘yesternight’, ‘yester-eve’ which were already old-fashioned in his day. –  PLL Jan 26 '11 at 17:35
    
Very good explanation ! –  Mr.X Jan 26 '11 at 17:43

I think you are misinterpreting Fowler. When he says "many idioms militate against it (last Tuesday; last year ; for the last fortnight; on the last occasion ; as I said in my last)", he means that these are the only correct forms, even though they clash with certain expectations of logic. Burchfield agrees: "In many idiomatic phrases last is still the only possible adj. of the two: = most recent; next before a specified time ( last Christmas; last week)".

The fact that some idiom is illogical or ambiguous does not mean that it should be changed; indeed, it should be kept here, say Fowler and Burchfield. I know this because I have read enough of their opinions to be sure.

I am not sure whether Bierce means to say "it is illogical and it should be changed" or "it is illogical but it is idiom and therefore we should keep it"; but his "Here two wrongs seem to make a right: we can say the week last past. But will we? I trow not." seems to indicate that he did not advocate a change of universal idiom either, illogical though it may be. He appears to say "this would be logical, but we will not use it, simply because we have long traditions of usage".

Words like "yester-week" were not even current around 1900, and now they are even less so; "last week" is and was the right way to say it. I see no other option.

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As always in English, tradition trumps logic. –  Orbling Apr 12 '11 at 23:06
    
@Orbling: Exactly! This language sucks. –  Cerberus Apr 12 '11 at 23:27
    
@Cerberus: Logic I like; but I like tradition better. ;-) –  Orbling Apr 13 '11 at 9:02
    
@Orbling: Cue me proposing to demolish all medieval churches for being illogical. –  Cerberus Apr 13 '11 at 11:30
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@Cerberus: The church buildings are lovely, better than any modern tat. It's just the people inside them that are illogical, demolish them. –  Orbling Apr 13 '11 at 11:39

The word yester-week is entirely obsolete today. Using it in contemporary English is not a mark of correctness, but of insanity.

This was largely the case even in the time of Mr. Bierce, which is what makes his illogical and ill-informed screed so funny.

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poor Bierce may not be quite as degraded as the uses to which this questioner would put him. He doesn’t even mention ‘yester-’ in this quote; and (though I don’t know the context, so I may be wrong) it could fit just as well into “Ha, look at the illogical vagaries of our languages; aren’t they fascinating and beautiful?” as into “Ugh! This is Illogical and Must be Reformed!” –  PLL Jan 26 '11 at 17:30
    
@PLL: I think that's it. –  Cerberus Jan 26 '11 at 17:34
    
One maid’s insanity is the next one’s poetry. And vice versa. –  tchrist Jan 12 '13 at 3:39

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