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?