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This doubt came up during a recent exchange I had at work.

The context was the release of some new software.

In the communication to the users, we wrote "[...] will be updated during the night of Feb 21st.".

I was interpreting that as 'the night between the 21st and 22nd', so some time between 8:01 pm on Feb 21st and 5:59 am on Feb 22nd (why these times? See https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/8977), whereas my colleague meant 'the night between the 20th and 21st'.

Thinking about it, there are more 'night hours' of the 21st in my colleague's interpretation, but in my perception 'the night of' a given day could not start the day before.
Unless one assumes that the night of a given day starts at 00:00.

How would a native English speaker interpret that sentence? 20-21 or 21-22? Or is it an ambiguous expression in the first place, and perhaps should one use the more explicit 'during the night between ...'?

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    To be unambiguously clear you should state times: "...will be updated between 20:00 on 21 February and 06:00 the following morning." Note that between denotes an absolute start and finish time, so you could do it from 22:05 and be finished by midnight and not violate your notification. [However, this doesn't answer the question about "the night of", so it's merely a comment on your starting premise.]
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 21 at 8:03
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    I would certainly interpret it in the same way as you did. Feb 21 at 9:23
  • Great, I see that the usual tiresome jolly brigade of mindless downvoters has managed to spot this post, too... I would like to see even just one of these people stand in front of someone and tell them to their face that they asked a stupid question. Completely useless people who not only don't contribute anything to the sum of human knowledge, but perniciously take the time to discourage others from exchanging useful information. Ineffective, too, because I am going to continue to ask questions whenever I see fit. They are not the judges of my intelligence or appropriateness. Feb 22 at 11:50
  • @user6376297, so far there has been exactly one vote down on this question. That hardly constitutes a 'brigade'.
    – jsw29
    Feb 22 at 21:02
  • @jsw29 : even just one is one too many. Anonymous downvoting is the cancer of Stack Exchange, and it will erode it from within unless they remove it. There is 100% NO POINT downvoting people's question without providing an explanation or justification. If the question is legitimate and well-posed, it's just unmotivated aggression. If the question is not legitimate or not well-posed, then not explaining why does not help the OP correct it or do better next time. I realise that not everyone is very strong in logic, but this should be evident to anyone with half a brain. Feb 23 at 7:18

1 Answer 1

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In some cultures, the evening belongs to the day which follows, that is, days run from sunset to sunset. This used to be the case in the West, and still is in the Catholic Church, where a feast day starts with First Vespers [evening prayer] on the day before*.

However, time is now ruled by the clock and days start at midnight. The night of 21 February is the night which starts on that date.

I can't find any corroborating reference in dictionaries (Collins, MW, Cambridge; even OED) or textbooks (New Fowler, Swan) so I'm afraid this is just assertion based on experience.


*This is an anomalous hang-over, though. In the Church most days start and end at midnight.

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  • Thanks, very interesting! In fact I am wondering now if the different interpretation is indeed cultural in origin. The colleague I was referring to is a Dutch speaker, and in Dutch they say e.g. 'half negen' (i.e. half nine) to indicate 08h30, so in essence they mean that in half an hour it will be 9. I wonder if this could be a manifestation of the forward-looking attitude of Dutch people, or just something due to historical factors. But OK, just speculating here. I got my answer, so I know how to express the concept correctly when addressing people in English. Thanks again! Feb 21 at 10:36
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    @user6376297 similarly in German halp neun means halfway through the ninth hour, and the twentieth century was the years from 1901 to 2000 (the millienium was a magic number thing, celebrated a year early). Feb 21 at 13:29
  • @WeatherVane : thanks, very interesting to know that, too. In fact now I wonder what they say at 23:30 :). Feb 22 at 11:43
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    @user6376297 with halb zwölf? I believe they do say e.g. acht dreissig too, so dreiundzwanzig uhr dreissig. Feb 22 at 13:00
  • While it is undoubtedly true that 'the night of Feb 21st' is the one that starts on the 21st and continues into the early hours of the 22nd, the time now being 'ruled by the clock' does not really explain why the night is identified by the date on which it starts, rather than the date on which it ends. The reason is probably that most of the activities that straddle the midnight are perceived as a continuation of the activities of the preceding day. In the rare cases in which they are perceived as attached to the following day, some entirely different formulation would be used.
    – jsw29
    Feb 23 at 16:48

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