The Non-Deictic Use of Previous and Last : A Corpus-Based Studyby Isaiah WonHo Yoo

English Studies


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The Non-Deictic Use of Previous and

Last: A Corpus-Based Study

Isaiah WonHo Yoo

Published online: 25 Feb 2015.

To cite this article: Isaiah WonHo Yoo (2015) The Non-Deictic Use of Previous and Last: A CorpusBased Study, English Studies, 96:3, 337-357, DOI: 10.1080/0013838X.2014.996387

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D ow nl oa de d by [U niv ers ity of

B irm ing ha m] at 09 :49 20

M arc h 2 01 5

The Non-Deictic Use of Previous and

Last: A Corpus-Based Study

Isaiah WonHo Yoo

In an attempt to present a clear picture of the use of previous, most grammars and usage guides resort to the explanation that previous replaces last when our viewpoint is in the past, looking further back into the past, and provide examples in which last occurs with the simple past and previous with the past perfect, for example I’m sure I saw him last week versus. I was sure I’d seen him the previous week. This article has found, however, that last can also occur with the past perfect and that the prototypical example of previous is not typical at all, as less than 20% of the previous tokens occurred with the past perfect. Thus, giving the impression that previous must replace last when the verb tense changes from simple past to past perfect is not only misleading but does not get at the core reason why previous usually replaces last in such a context: the shift in viewpoint from deictic to non-deictic, which happens not only in past contexts but also in future and timeless contexts. 1. Introduction

The Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture gives the following example of previous under its first definition, “happening or existing before the one mentioned”:1 (1) On Sunday he denied all knowledge of it, but on the previous day (= Saturday) he’d admitted to me that he knew all about it.

At the end of the first entry of previous, the dictionary directs the reader to the usage section of last, in which the following examples are given in order to contrast the deictic use of last, that is “[w]hen our point of view is in the present, looking back

Isaiah WonHo Yoo is affiliated with the Department of English Literature and Linguistics, Sogang University,

Korea. Email: 1Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture, 1042.

This article was originally published with errors. See erratum (

English Studies, 2015

Vol. 96, No. 3, 337–357, © 2015 Taylor & Francis

D ow nl oa de d by [U niv ers ity of

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M arc h 2 01 5 to the past”, with the non-deictic use of previous, that is “[w]hen our point of view is in the past, looking even further back into the past”:2 (2) a. I’m sure I saw George at the club last week. b. I was sure I had seen George at the club the previous week.

Also directing the reader to the usage entry of last and lastly, the Collins

COBUILD English Usage states that “[w]hen you are describing something that happened in the past and you want to refer to an earlier period of time, you use previous or before instead of ‘last’ ” and gives the following two example sentences containing previous:3 (3) a. We had had a row the previous night. b. His village had been destroyed the previous summer.

What these three entries about previous all have in common is the following: one, they say that the use of previous requires an explicit or implicit non-deictic anchor, that is time in the past from which one can look “even further back into the past”; two, all the examples occur with the past perfect, giving the impression that previous requires the past perfect and last the simple past.

Retrieved from corpus data, however, example (4) contains sentences in which previous occurs not with the past perfect but with the simple past and last not with the simple past but with the past perfect: (4) “Greg, I didn’t think you’d make it”, Bobby said, obviously happy to see me.

He didn’t know the half of it. I’d promised him last month that I would attend his retirement performance Mother’s Day. That was before I was sent on an assignment abroad. I returned to Baltimore only the previous

Monday. So here I was, about to watch Bobby perform his blackface Al