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It happens all the time. You are in line at the grocery store, Starbucks or anywhere cashiers are employed. Having finished a transaction, one will cheerily offer to help "the following customer."

I'm pretty sure that "the next customer" is the correct usage here, unless they call that following customer by name. Am I right?

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What if they said "I can help the following customer: the next one in line"? –  JeffSahol Aug 25 '11 at 1:20
I have to think that cashiers have been instructed by management to use "following". I can't believe that cashiers on their own would come up with such silliness. I've also heard "following guest" instead of "customer", which is even more convoluted. Does anyone know more about this? I'll be asking the following cashier I encounter who uses it about this. –  user33193 Jan 4 '13 at 14:40
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5 Answers

It’s a participle being used as an adjective (like “the walking dead” or “the setting sun”). It’s a little unusual, in that the phrase “next customer” is the common idiom in English, but I can’t see what could possibly be wrong about it.

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This is closest to correct, but if you can't see what's wrong with it, you are not really a language enthusiast. We strive for precision in language. For ages the next customer was called with the word "next." I have no idea how the change occurred, it started five or ten years ago, when somebody must have decided it would make clerks sound more sophisticated. I would much rather hand my money to someone who says "next." –  user14069 Oct 20 '11 at 17:41
@Mous True language enthusiasts strive for breadth of understanding. Striving for "precision" in language is like striving for chemical purity in cooking: kind of the opposite of the point. It is impurities that makes food taste good, and it is the imprecision of language that makes it worth being enthusiastic about. –  nohat Oct 20 '11 at 23:08
@MousANony: nohat is right. The priority in ordinary language is breadth of understanding. There is a place for precision, but it is another domain: technical language. Forcing too much precision into ordinary language leads to hyper-correctness, itself a form of error. –  Hexagon Tiling Mar 17 '12 at 21:01
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There's nothing wrong with it. In this case it's being used in the same context as "the following day" which is commonly interchanged with "the next day".

People line up and follow each other just the same as the days in a week. It makes sense to me!

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This is incorrect. The example is fine, but it reflects the use of the word "following" in a statement of past tense not at all comparable to the next customer in line situation. The days of the week example is also flawed. Tuesday does follow Monday sequentially, but when one looks at a calendar Monday seems to follow Tuesday. The use of "following" can be ambiguous when speaking about days. –  user14069 Oct 20 '11 at 17:41
The literal definition of following is "coming after or as a result of". Tuesday comes after Monday (Tuesday is the following day). If Bob is behind Alice in line, Bob comes after Alice, therefore Bob follows Alice and is the following customer. I still insist that this makes sense and people will understand what you mean when you say it. –  jathanism Oct 21 '11 at 1:54
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According to OneLook it means:

adj. going or proceeding or coming after in the same direction, e.g. "The crowd of following cars made the occasion seem like a parade"

So although it is not an incorrect word, perhaps it grates on one's nerves since it connotes the sense of people as objects flowing mindlessly toward the cashier, as if you have no choice but "to follow".

It reminds me of a scene in a movie once with a tour guide directing a group of tourists to follow her, saying: "We're walking... we're walking... we're stopping..." The language it correct, but it's funny because it makes the relationship between the tour guide and the group seem so mechanical and impersonal.

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But it's not a verb in this usage. I think it's just wrong! –  Bklyn Aug 13 '10 at 0:11
right, that was a typo. as nohat pointed out, "following" is a participle being used as an adjective, corrected –  Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 0:46
@Bklyn - As the purpose of language is to communicate, it is really only "wrong" if people don't understand what they mean. –  T.E.D. Aug 24 '11 at 23:56
This is incorrect; it relies on the definition that is used to justify the usage, but that definition does not mean "next" in any normal sense, but rather suggests that the person behind the first person in line should go next. –  user14069 Oct 20 '11 at 17:41
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I would understand "I can help the following customer" to mean the customer that is following the customer that is already being helped. In this context, "following" simply means "immediately behind or after", synonymous with "next".

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I don't think it's grammatically incorrect, although it does sound awkward to many people, including me. One may say, for instance, "Yesterday has past, and today is the following day." Here is an implied, "The last customer" as in, "The last customer has gone, and now I may help the following customer." It sounds wrong because it sounds to many of us like the speaker is attempting sophistication unnecessarily.

I also think it's a NYC quirk, similar to the use of "on line" vs. "in line", as in, "We are standing on line waiting for the cashier." If you really want a full dose of NYC cashier regionalism, wait until you hear, "I can help the following customer on line." Not wrong, but very specifically NYC, and wide-spread.

Fundamentally, I think this is more of a class thing and than a grammar thing (IMHO). FYI, "on line" comes from the NYC public schools, where kids had to literally stand on a painted line. It bugs me a bit, but I'm choosing to get over it. I've not heard either of these used outside of NY. Curious to know if it happens elsewhere.

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I'm not sure that "the following customer" is NYC-related; in my experience, it is common elsewhere on the east coast. // See Which is correct: “standing on line” or “standing in line”?. The "on line" variation does occur to some extent elsewhere in the Northeast US. There are many legends about it coming from standing on a painted line but no evidence for that origin. (Think about the fact that public schoolchildren are taught to line up on painted lines in many places.) –  aedia λ Oct 30 '11 at 22:52
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protected by RegDwigнt Jan 4 '13 at 15:30

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