Q&A: Coming vs Upcoming

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, in an upcoming Q&A…

Q: We've had a few people, including David on email last week asking us about the use of the word “upcoming”.
A: We do like to throw that one around a lot with regard to our “upcoming courses”!
Q: Well some clearly don't think it's necessary. Bordering on flagrant tautology. For example, Fairfax bans it in its style guide.
A: Whoa, calm down. Let's handle this like the civil pedants that we are.
Q: Fair enough. So, most wonder why one wouldn't just use “coming” instead of “upcoming”? David took it a step further with the assertion that there's no such word as “downcoming” so surely an event should merely be “coming”.
A: Okay okay. Form an orderly queue. We'll start with David's point. There's also no such word as “downstanding” but that doesn't mean that “upstanding citizen” should become “standing citizen”. This is English. And English throws its head back and laughs like a banshee at any attempt to find meaning in its meanderings.
Q: I shake my fist in your general direction, English.
A: And yes, Fairfax and countless others will say, “why use ‘upcoming' when ‘coming' will work just as well?” And we agree with them. But only when “coming” WILL work just as well.
Q: Please explain.
A: Well they don't always mean quite the same thing or fit into a sentence the same way. In this context, they're both adjectives – with “upcoming” describing imminent events/things and always appearing before the noun. Meanwhile, “coming” can describe people and things and can appear before or after the noun. It's a more versatile word – which is why it sometimes doesn't fit as well as “upcoming”.
A: What's that?
Q: It's the sound of a truckload of examples reversing in.
A: Haha, okay sure. So we'd say “Billy Crystal is coming to Australia this winter” and that he's “a coming attraction” in the venue's schedule of events.
Q: So not an “upcoming attraction” then?
A: We think that's one of those times when “upcoming” would be overkill. Cinemas have touted their “coming attractions” for decades and it feels fine.
Q: But this newsletter talks about “upcoming courses” – isn't that similar overkill?
A: A style choice. Some may think so, but as we are distinguishing between courses that are shortly to happen, simply saying “coming courses” doesn't convey the “soon to happen” vibe we're after.
Q: Okay.
A: It's the same reason we (but clearly not Fairfax) would say that it's “Billy Crystal's upcoming tour of Australia” even though we just used “coming” in a near-similar context. “Coming” was describing HIM and this time “upcoming” describes the TOUR. Of all of his tours, this one is the next on the list for him.
Q: What do the dictionaries say?
A: Nothing. Books can't talk.
Q: Oh, you're hilarious.
A: It's a legit word. Macquarie Dictionary (Australia's standard) defines “upcoming” as “shortly to happen”, e.g. “the upcoming release of an album”. And our friends at Merriam-Webster point out that the first known usage was in 1943. It does seem to fill a niche that no other word does quite as well.
Q: But couldn't you just say “forthcoming” instead?
A: It's similar, but there's a more relaxed vibe about “forthcoming”. “Billy Crystal's forthcoming book” might not be published until next year, but an upcoming book launch implies it's that little bit closer.
Q: Were you being completely forthcoming with your answer?
A: Yes. (You have to love English and its double meanings!)
Q: So wait. We'd say “in the coming days” though, right?
A: Yes we would. Days and months don't really work with “upcoming” – they already mark the time, so there's little use adding anything. The one exception might be at Christmas card time. Plenty say “best wishes for the upcoming year” although it's such an autopilot task that it's practically an idiom…
Q: So, a quick recap: “coming” and “upcoming” can sometimes be interchangeable (e.g. “the coming election” vs “the upcoming election”), but often one just feels better than the other. “Upcoming” only describes events/things and will appear before the noun in the sentence. And many style guides and many people hate it, but it can be useful and probably isn't going away.
A: That sounds about right. It's a style choice and we have chosen Macquarie Dictionary over Fairfax in this instance.
Q: And does any of this have anything to do with being an up-and-coming actor?
A: Nothing at all. But who knows – maybe we'll discuss it in an upcoming newsletter!

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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