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In the comments of an answer on English Language Learners, I explained to a non-native speaker the usage of "tonight" as being something like "the current or forthcoming night": during the nighttime, it refers to the current night; during the day it refers to the night that will start at the end of that day.

Another user disagrees, and says:

Tonight is an ambiguous word. Generally, I have to clarify with those around me whether they're talking about "now" or the night period that just elapsed (if it's morning) or talking about the next night period that has not yet begun. Most people don't seem to realize there was a need to disambiguate their usage of the term.

The emphasis is mine, and highlights a usage of "tonight" which I don't believe I've ever encountered.

I'm a native (UK) English speaker and wrote my explanation primarily based on my own experience and intuition, but I did check several dictionaries (both UK and US) before posting it to make sure the advice wasn't misguided.

For example, Oxford Dictionaries provides the following definition:

On the present or approaching evening or night.

Merriam-Webster:

on this present night or the night following this present day

Cambridge:

(during) the night of the present day:

American Heritage Dictionary:

On or during the present or coming night.

All of the above definitions correspond to my understanding of the word, and seem to me to unambiguously exclude the interpretation as "the night period that just elapsed". I did find references to that interpretation on dictionary.com:

Obsolete. during last night.

and at Collins:

obsolete
last night

but in both cases the definition is marked as obsolete, which I take to mean it is no longer in common usage (or if it is, the usage is confined to one or more relatively small areas).

I'd be very interested if anybody could provide evidence (preferably not just anecdotal) for or against this usage being widespread in English today (and any geographical trends relating to the usage). I asked the other user about their location and they said they

live in the USA and have lived in various places throughout the country. In every single locale, I've dealt with ambiguous usage of "tonight"

so this wouldn't be explained by a usage local to some small area.

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    If I were talking in the morning about the night that had just elapsed I would say 'last night' or 'in the night'. 'Tonight' definitely means the current or forthcoming night. – Kate Bunting Jan 12 '18 at 9:31
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    @Mari-LouA thanks, I think those are good suggestions and have edited the question. – Chris H Jan 12 '18 at 10:14
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    @KateBunting I agree, but perhaps if something unexpected had happened to keep my company and I still awake at 3.00am, I might just say "What do you make of tonight's events?". However, at some point it starts to become "last night" - perhaps as daylight arrives. – WS2 Jan 12 '18 at 10:48
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    @WS2 If the events are still happening, then you might say "What do you make of tonight's events?"; if the events have stopped, but it's still night (or dawn is only just breaking), you might say "What did you make of tonight's events?", but any later than that I think it would have to be "What did you make of last night's events?". – TripeHound Jan 12 '18 at 11:53
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    One has to weight corpus research carried out by the major dictionaries above personal experience outlined by an individual. Doubtless they are picking up on a real practice, but equally it should be labelled 'non-standard' and 'rare' and pointed out as a source of confusion. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '18 at 16:32
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The relevant definition in the full (subscription-only) OED is...

tonight
...
†3. On the night just past; last night. (Perhaps only said in the morning.) Obs. exc. dial.

...where the dagger symbol indicates "obsolete" (as also explicitly mentioned in the definition).

As an indication of just how obsolete that sense is, it's worth noting that the most recent citation for that sense is...

1798 J. Jefferson Let. to J. Boucher 23 Feb. (MS.) [Hampshire expressions] To-night for last night, or yesternight.

...so it was obviously considered dialectal/non-standard/antiquated over two centuries ago (back when yesternight was still thought of as a "normal" word). There's no mention on the relevant OED page of any (past or present) US usage difference, so I doubt there's any significance to that aspect.

  • Does exc.dial. mean 'except in certain dialects'? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '18 at 16:27
  • @Edwin: I'm sure it does. In principle, we could make sense of excluding (certain) dialectal usages, this sense is obsolete, but that hardly seems likely. And to be honest I find it unlikely that there would be many if any dialectal speakers still using a sense that would inevitably raise eyebrows whenever mainstream speakers had to interpret what was intended. – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '18 at 16:34
  • I can't see another interpretation. Perhaps, in the light of OP's contact's claim, it's a 'scatter-dialect'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '18 at 16:44
  • At least some "US dialectal oddities" arise from quirky links to other languages (there would have been lots of isolated communities where many people were actually more familiar with German / Dutch / Swedish / etc.), so unless we suppose OP's claimed observations are mistaken (or a statistical fluke), it might be there's a word in some other language that can be applied to the "nearest" night in the future or the past. – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '18 at 17:22
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    (I'm not familiar with "scatter-dialect" though. Sounds like it might just mean erroneous / non-standard form used in various locations under the influence of widely-dispersed non-native speakers). – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '18 at 17:25

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