The day after tomorrow

I often thought it was strange that many students come up with these long and complex sentences such as “I will go to the beach the day after tomorrow”, when they could have just said “I’m going to the beach on Sunday”. Ignoring the awkward use of will for now, why would they say that mouthful “the day after tomorrow” when they could simply say “on Sunday”?

The difference comes from translating ideas into English that don’t fit:
In Japanese, more words are used to express days.

一昨日 昨日 今日 明日 明後日 明々後日
yesterday today tomorrow

The kanji for 明後日 best translates to “the day after tomorrow”, so it seems like this particular expression has been adopted.

But is it actually a practical English expression? Let’s have a look at how it is used.

 

“The day after tomorrow” isn’t very common

Here is some data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).

The expression “the day after tomorrow” (207) isn’t anywhere near as common as “today”(259153), “yesterday” (35593), and “tomorrow” (42025).

The day after tomorrow - yesterday, today and tomorrow - graph

Even if we look at the graph without “today”, “the day after tomorrow” is barely visible.

The day after tomorrow - Yesterday and tomorrow - graph

Using the days of the week is far more common.

The day after tomorrow Vs the days of the week - graph

There are other expressions that are more common for talking about the day after tomorrow.

The day after tomorrow and other expressions - graph

but something here still looks a bit odd…

Why is “the day after tomorrow” more common in academic writing than these other expressions?

The movie: 

Movie: The day after tomorrow

A staggering number of the examples of “the day after tomorrow” in the corpus are referring to the movie: “The Day After Tomorrow”. In academic writing, this is 40 of the 45 examples, 90%!

Academic 40/45: 90% 

Magazine 19/29: 66%

Newspapers 5/15: 33%

Spoken 7/27: 26%

Fiction 1/91: 1%

 

Overall, this is 72/207:  35%!

If we forget about all the examples referring to the movie, there are only a couple of main uses:

The day after tomorrow - not the movie - graph

In fiction

This expression is most common in fiction writing. A good fiction writer thinks about the reader. Does the reader know what day it is? How could they, unless you say what day it is, but this is often unneeded complexity. So, authors often have to use other expressions such as “the day after tomorrow” so the reader can understand the timing of events.

What about the other uses?

“The day after tomorrow” can be used to make an event sound closer, like it’s almost tomorrow.

It is often used after the word “tomorrow”. The speaker is thinking about tomorrow and the next day: the day after tomorrow.

For example:
If I don’t have time to watch the movie tomorrow, I’ll watch it the day after tomorrow.

 

What should I say?

If you’re writing fiction an expression such as “the day after tomorrow” might be useful, but for most situations it is unusual; simpler expressions are more common. “The day after tomorrow” can be useful if you are thinking and talking about tomorrow and want to add an extra day. But, if you are simply saying when something happens, it is easier and more natural to just use the day of the week.

 

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