Let me start with an observation: Let's say it's half past 12 and you're heading off to bed, I personally would say

Tomorrow I have to get up early for work

And as far as I know all my friends would too, but when I got into a discussion with a friend about this we looked up the definitions where tomorrow is

the day after today.

and today is

on or in the course of this present day.

and day is

a period of twenty-four hours as a unit of time, reckoned from one midnight to the next, corresponding to a rotation of the earth on its axis.

(all quotes taken from the google.com dictionary)

Although there are a couple of more options for day both on the google dictionary and a couple of other dictionaries I checked, none define the term in regards to sleep cycles. So, is this usage actually uncommon in English? Or is this simply a fault in the dictionaries I checked? Or am I misinterpreting the definitions?

And just to be clear, I would have expected tomorrow to be defined as something along the lines of

Tomorrow. The time after one wakes up, or — if one is not sleeping — after the time the majority of people are asleep (normally around 4–5 AM).

But as I am not an English native speaker I did want to check whether that usage really isn't correct in English speaking countries.

  • Depends on who you ask. Technically, per "modern" standards, "tomorrow" begins at midnight, but that can get a little fuzzy in the "wee hours". For this reason it's fairly common to avoid using "tomorrow" when it's near midnight and use "in the morning" or some such. (Or, if you want to get really technical, "tomorrow" never comes.)
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 28, 2015 at 3:02
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    @HotLicks Modern standards as in "that's how people use it" or modern standards as in "that's how it's supposed to be according to certain misapplied definitions". Because I personally have never seen anybody be confused at all when I used 'tomorrow' to refer to 'the time after I/we wake up'~ And I am pretty sure I must have used it often enough~ Aug 28, 2015 at 3:07
  • Oh and @tchrist: much obliged! Aug 28, 2015 at 3:11
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    "Modern standards" with regard to timekeeping -- that the new day begins at midnight (a relatively artificial time) vs at the crack of dawn or some such. When "tomorrow" is used in speech between midnight and roughly 3AM people tend to be conscious of the opportunity for ambiguity and will often make an extra effort to avoid it, where appropriate.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 28, 2015 at 3:12
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    @HotLicks Oh wow, that's surprising to hear. I have so much trouble imagining someone saying that at 12:30 on 1/1 and meaning he's going somewhere on 3/1~ as it sounds totally incorrect to me~ just like if my plane lands at 12:30 I wouldn't say 'I am arriving tomorrow' or anything along those lines~ Aug 28, 2015 at 3:25

3 Answers 3


Whatever time it is, it's always after midnight. As in, after some midnight that went before.

Seriously, this is a choice of being figurative or literal. Whenever people correct this they do it teasingly. We all know what is meant. We're having fun with the fact that our expectations fail us when in an unfamiliar situation.

A student going home at the end of a school year might say to a class mate, "See you next year".

A student going home for christmas break and not returning until January might also say, "See you next year". This is literally true but is just being silly.

So if you say,

Tomorrow I have to get up early for work

after midnight I would only correct you to have a bit of fun with you.

What's being conflated here is that tomorrow means the next day, but it also usually means after we go to sleep. The usual expectation breaks down when you stay up after midnight.

Actually this happens to me most often when I say, "I'll do that tomorrow" and it happens to be Friday. Since I don't work weekends people know I mean Monday. But they tease me anyway.

The literal definitions of our words are the anchors that keeps them from drifting onto the rocks of the incomprehensible, but despite that, we do give them a long chain.

  • Still, normally dictionaries do cover all meanings of a word. That's the point of dictionaries. If I look up 'year' the generic time period is also mentioned (one revolution), which thus allows the specific case of a 'school year'. The thing that surprised me is that I could not back up the usage of 'tomorrow' in the same way. Aug 28, 2015 at 3:14
  • Dictionaries most certainly do not cover all meanings of a word. If they did it would give away all our inside jokes. No, even unabridged dictionaries cover only a relatively few meanings, often without much context. A dictionary is a set of hints that can get you started understanding. Keep in mind that we're inventing new uses for old words all the time. Aug 28, 2015 at 3:21
  • Of course they tend to be out of date and overly generic. But I rarely encounter cases where they miss generic meanings entirely~ Aug 28, 2015 at 3:26
  • And just to give some context: Yes, I did realize that he was to a large extent just messing around, but in turn I tend to point out to most people that 'literal' interpretations aren't correct most of the time, because that's not how language works. And up till this case that was always backed up when I grabbed a couple of dictionaries, but this was the first time I ended up with nothing~ Aug 28, 2015 at 3:28
  • They aren't missing a generic meaning. They're simply not communicating every expectation that can be violated. Do you have any idea how long a dictionary would have to be if it had to anticipate every expectation you might thrust at a word? "Sorry", an apology. Be aware some people may use it sarcastically. I don't want to see how far that would go. Aug 28, 2015 at 3:31

Date is defined as changing at midnight, so any time after midnight is technically the next day, or "tomorrow".

However, your intuition is partially correct. For instance, if you've been working all night with a colleague, or studying with a fellow student, and it is now 1 AM and you are both bleary-eyed, it is entirely normal to say, "Oh man, I'm beat. I'll see you tomorrow." where "tomorrow" in this case means "later today".

  • So you're saying the definitions for 'tomorrow' aren't correct then in most dictionaries? (Not correct in the sense of not complete enough) Aug 28, 2015 at 3:10
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    Well, I'd say it's more of a case of "a day" not being well-defined. Your third definition, "on or in the course of this present day" is not always used with "day" being measured from midnight to midnight. It's not uncommon for people to refer to a day's activities as those occurring between waking up and going to bed, and if it happens that you go to bed after midnight, well, your day has overlapped the date change. Even so, most people are asleep at midnight, and the formal usage normally applies. Aug 28, 2015 at 3:18
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    But that's just the thing, when I looked up definitions of day none of them matched that. Because that's exactly the kind of definition of day that I was expecting, yet out of the 15 or so different definitions I read none of them matched that (the closest one was something along the lines of the period of the day when people are most active... which didn't make a lot of sense to me) Aug 28, 2015 at 3:21

When we talk about units of time such as days and tomorrows we often use psychological time and not dictionary time. So if you say "see you tomorrow." (and who hasn't stayed up till 2, 3, or 4?) you are meaning the next psychological day. You will go to sleep and wake up to a new day at work, school, or whatever. This doesn't really work for week, month, year, or other units of time.

What about someone saying goodbye at 6pm but intending to meet the person at 2am, in 8 hours? What do we say in that case? I think people would say either "see you later," or "see you tomorrow." Possibly, "see you at 2."

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