Sunday, 29 March 2009

On not being last

A correspondent writes to ask: 'If there is a queue of 5 people, which person is second from last? person 3 or 4?'

If there's an uncertainty here, it must be because of a conflict between logic and language. I suppose logically it could be either, depending on how you 'see' the queue - whether the fifth person is included in the sequence or excluded from it. But linguistically, the weight of usage surely makes it person 4. Usual usage has such sequences as (in a race):

He came last
He came second last = second from the end
He came third last = third from the end

and so on. Note that we can't say:

He came first last.

The same point applies to second from last. There is no first from last, which we'd have to allow if person 3 was the interpretation.

On the other hand, there are two usages: second from last and second last. Is there a difference in meaning between these two?

We went to the beach on our second-last day.
We went to the beach on our second-from-last day.

The stress is on the second-last syllable.
The stress is on the second-from-last syllable.

For me, these are the same. The OED illustrates the first usage but not the second. Is there anyone out there who makes a distinction?

14 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Negative data: I don't say "second-last" but when I hear it I interpret it as meaning "second from last" and as person number 4 in the example. It's just that "second" is assumed be "second from first" so you have to say that you're starting from the other end. Second is still second.

Bob Hale said...

I haven't really thought about it before but I think I'd have taken "second from last" to mean third in the example. While it's true that I wouldn't say "first from last" I'd certainly say "last but one" (and never "last but two") which I think would perform the same function.

Alex Wood said...

For me, second-last = second from/to last = last but one.

Jake said...

I'd normally use another variant 'second to last', but that is synonymous with 'second from last' and 'second last'(less common) as per your usage.

It isn't necessarily illogical, its just ambiguous in numerical terms as it is not specified whether we are counting 'inclusively' or 'exclusively'. I would suggest that normal usage is to count inclusively (i.e. counting the 'last' as being part of the number).

This also makes sense if you consider a long line of things: at the front, we'd count first, second, third, and from the back we'd count last, second-to-last, third-to-last. This symmetry seems more natural.

David Crosbie said...

My instinct is to think that I use 'second to last' for person 3 and 'second last' for person 4.

David said...

I wouldn't say first last (or second last or nth last, for that matter). That structure is just not in my idiolect. I would say second to last and that is not equivalent to next to last. Person 3 would be second to last and person 4 would be next to last.

Matthew said...

Of course, mathematicians and (especially) computer scientists have a habit of counting from zero. So even a phrase such as "person number four" is ambiguous in certain circles :-)

Emily said...

I've always used "second to last" to mean the one immediately before last, and it never occured to me that this or a similar construction could mean anything else. But now that I think of it, it seems slightly odd; maybe it's related to "second place"(by symmetry, as Jake noted).

Chaa006 said...

On a closely related theme, I received an e-mail yesterday from a Polish friend who speaks perfect unaccented English, yet wrote saying that his knowledge of Gdansk was "second to none" meaning -- not as a native speaker would have intended : "as perfect as such knowledge can be", but rather : "virtually non-existent".

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd just use "penultimate"

DC said...

That just avoids the issue. It doesn't solve it.

Bill Davis said...

I have never heard "second last" in 55 years. But in my usage, you have:

First
Second
Third (also second to last)
Fourth (also next to last)
Last

I hear "second FROM the last" also, almost always with the "the," but this is usually not used to described a place in a contest, but more commonly used for physical objects, e.g. "Paint the fence post. Which one? The second from the last."

Rand said...

There is no "first to last" usage, but there is "next to last" which is very clear and second to last would therefore be person number 3 in a 5 person queue.

vp said...

In my experience "last but one" and the like are unknown in the US. I was greeted with incomprehension when I used the term.