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Jul 8, 2018

The reason why you can't say "second to the last" in English

Just when I thought I have known a lot about the English language, I discovered another phrase which I have been ignorantly basking in. Indeed, English is a language we can't stop learning irrespective of our degrees in either the language or other fields of study. The continuous learning of this language keeps you abreast of its hidden realities. So, let's learn.

The reason why you can't say "second to the last" in English

"Second to the last" is a very common phrase among second learners of English. Of course we use it appropriately. We use it refer to something or someone that is immediately preceding the end of a sequence or list. For example, we do say, "The second to the last person" or "The second to the last name." Unfortunately, most of us do not know that this is not the right way of stating the phrase probably because the difference between the actual phrase and the way we state it is quite subtle. Yes, the difference is quite subtle because the right way of stating the phrase is, "second to last". The article (the) is not required before "last"; however, it will normally be needed before "second" because a noun usually accompanies the phrase. For example, “The second to last seat." 

Again, Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as an idiom, and idioms are fix expressions, that is, their structures and meanings always remain the same regardless of the situation. Changing their structures means altering their meanings and depriving them of their idiomatic status. Therefore, you don't write or say "second to the last" instead of "second to last".


Other ways you can state the phrase, the second to last, in English are: "the next to last", "the one before last"; or "the penultimate". For those who may still find it difficult to state the phrase correctly, I advise you always use the third option, that is, "the penultimate". This will save you from any form of confusion and the wracking of brain as regards where to place the definite article in the phrase. It will also interest you to note that in British English, "the penultimate" is a more acceptable form as an everyday or layman's term unlike in other varieties of English, where although perfectly correct, can be seen as slightly pretentious in normal spoken context.

In sum, don't say, "The second to the last" but say, "The second to last" if you must use this phrase. The definite article, the, shouldn't come before "last". But you can place it at the beginning of the phrase.

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