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If I ask

Are you available tonight for a drink?

does tonight refer to this evening and/or this night?

If not, what would be considered the beginning of the night and the end of the evening? Do they overlap?

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  • I never differentiate between "this night" and "tonight". – user32123 Dec 12 '12 at 7:14
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    Tonight = this evening --> I think your apprehension is unfounded. Given the context, the two alternatives convey exactly the same meaning. It's is a polite way of saying things and does not rely on technical nuances of the phrases. Any one who tries to interpret them differently, in the given context, is unaware of finesse. – Kris Dec 12 '12 at 9:30
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    @Kris, this is absolutely not that obvious for non native English speakers. – rochb Jan 11 '13 at 12:10
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I would say that this really depends on the context and common understanding between speaker and hearer.

Are you available for a drink tonight?

I would understand tonight as starting after work (if asked by a coworker) and lasting through something reasonable, like midnight nowadays. If the person asked works in a bar at night, it might mean "right now", no matter whether it is 6pm or 5am.

Asking

Where will you sleep tonight?

Tonight will denote the normal sleeping period.

Best is to further specify if necessary.

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    "Tonight" normally refers to the future, so "How did you sleep tonight?" sounds wrong; better to say, "How did you sleep last night?". – Steve Melnikoff Oct 8 '10 at 12:58
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    Granted, changed the example – malach Oct 8 '10 at 12:59
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It depends. I think they overlap for the beginning of the night/evening, but "tonight" goes further. So you can say "I'm dining in this evening", meaning you probably won't stay up too late, but if you say "I'm going to go out tonight", it could mean that you won't stay late, but it could be 2am or 5am also. You would never use "this evening" for going out until 2am, though.

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I agree with Claudiu -- when I hear "this evening" I think more klassy or low-key, like dinner and a movie, whereas "tonight" says festivities will go later and maybe get a little crazy.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "Evening (n.) -- from Old English æfnung "the coming of evening, sunset, time around sunset." This is opposed to "night", which is synonymous with "darkness".

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