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A Canadian police officer interviewed in a documentary says:

"Both (guardians) on Saturday and Sunday believed that Jonathan was with the other guardian. On Sunday evening the two of them met at some location in La Ronge and identified that, you know, mom's saying to grandma "You don't have Jonathan?" and vise versa. At that point in time they became concerned because neither of them had seen Jonathan for the previous day."

The preposition "for" strikes me as unnatural. I would have used either "on" or "in". My understanding is that the definition of "for" invoked here is lasting, an indication of duration of time, as in "I was digging holes for the entire day."

However, for the previous day doesn't sound idiomatic at all. Google Books hits all point to other usages of "for", e.g. "Let's pay for the previous day". People don't say "I did that for yesterday," but rather "I did that for the entire day yesterday." By the same token, "I kept hearing about the event for the entire year last year" instead of "I kept hearing about the event for last year." Is "for the previous day" idiomatic?

Also which preposition would best replace "for" here? Since this line talks about a length of time, "on" sounds better to me.

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The "for" seems weird. I would just get rid of it:

At that point in time they became concerned because neither of them had seen Jonathan the previous day.

By default, this means "for the entire day". However if you want to emphasize this, you can use all:

... neither of them had seen Jonathan all the previous day.

or, slightly less awkward:

... neither of them had seen Jonathan at all on the previous day.

Side note: The other answer mentions the ambiguity between "the previous day" and "the previous 24 hours". This kind of confusion is the regular subject of questions on ELL. Most of the time, it is not important which is meant. The officer's point is that the witnesses hadn't seen Jonathan for some time.

If it is important, the speaker would add some clarifying detail.

... neither of them had seen Jonathan since the evening, two days before.

Or the listener would ask a clarifying question:

Witness: I didn't see Jonathan at all the previous day.
Police: When exactly did you last see him?
Witness: It must have been in the evening of the day before that. We said goodbye and then he want to his home and we went to ours.

  • I have updated the question with what's said before this line. It doesn't seem likely that "the previous day" refers to "the previous 24 hours." More generally, I am not sure I have ever seen/heard "the previous day" used this way. – Eddie Kal May 5 at 18:24
  • @EddieKal It's fine. I just added that information for general interest, because Anonymous mentioned it. – Andrew May 5 at 19:38
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It is idiomatic. Native speakers often say things like "I've lived here for the last year" or "I've been sick for the last week".

There's a possible difference of meaning: "on the previous day" refers to all of yesterday. "For the previous day" might mean the same thing, but it might mean the last 24 hours instead.

So "on the previous day" means they didn't see Jonathan yesterday (but maybe they saw him earlier today). "For the previous day" could mean they haven't seen Jonathan in the last 24 hours or so (but if it's now evening, maybe they saw him yesterday morning).

Even if they don't intend a different meaning, "for the previous day" focuses on the duration (how long has it been since they last saw Jonathan?) instead of the time (when did they last see Jonathan?).

Edit: previous is not so idiomatic, because it's formal. Normally one says "for the last day", not "for the previous day". But this is a cop reporting the state of an investigation, which tends to be formal.

  • +1 and retracted my previous comment. I guess I still feel kind of iffy about "the previous day" referring to the last 24 hours. – Eddie Kal May 5 at 18:16
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    +1 I don't know if I'd called it completely normal, but it's certainly not wrong. It does sound like something people would say—even if not me. Nor would I say that it should necessarily be removed. We have for hours, for the last two days, for the previous three years, and so on. Perhaps a more normal sounding expression in this case (if there is to be a single word replacement) would be neither of them had seen Jonathan [within / during / since] the previous day. – Jason Bassford May 6 at 3:00
  • @JasonBassford The issue I had and am still having with "for the previous day" is that the previous day may not count backwards from the present as the last year and the last two days do, unless in some contexts it means what Anonymous interprets it to mean, namely "the last 24 hours". That is the same distinction made between "the last year" and "last year". I wouldn't bat an eye at "for the previous three years". – Eddie Kal May 6 at 14:57
  • @EddieKal That's just a matter of interpretation. It doesn't mean there's a problem with the sentence, as a sentence. Context should determine what is meant. If not, like most things, the person hearing it should ask what the specific meaning is. – Jason Bassford May 6 at 17:55

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