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I was reading a book and found this expression:

[...] my former, only and last husband.

Could anyone tell me what are the differences between former and last in this case?
Also, would former and only suffice to express this idea?

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I presume you know the definitions of former, only, and last.

They all mean what they usually mean. However, when used in series like this, it serves as a means of intensification. It does clarify that she has no intention or ever remarrying, but it's emphatic. It is a variation on the more common first, last, and only series.

Someone who hears "He is my only child" will know that the child was also the first and last child. However, "He is my first, last, and only child" makes it crystal clear that the speaker feels strongly about something (without context, I'd guess her child was enough for one lifetime.)

Similarly, my former and only husband clearly means he was her last husband; only and last means former husband as well, but the three in a series indicates something about the mood of the speaker. Clearly she means to say something not only about her husband, but also about the institution of marriage. If not, she could simply have referred to him as her ex-husband.

examples of this use:

  • First, last, and only structural selectors provides you with in-depth training on Web.
  • The First, Last and Only All-Black Ranger Unit
  • The First, Last and Only Thing You Need to Hear
  • Mandalay Bay is the first, last and only resort.
  • Live Each Day as if it were Your First, Last, and Only Day
  • The first, last, and only choice for the Senate...
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    I disagree that only and last means former as well... "She is the only and last girl I will ever love!" certainly does not mean that the love is over now. Whether former is implied depends more on the verb tense than on the uniqueness (only) or ordinality (last) of the husband, love or child. I do agree with the interpretation of the mood of the author from the use of adjectives with similar meanings though. – oerkelens May 20 '14 at 6:47
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Former -> Happened earlier in time but only relative to the current point.

Last -> Happened earlier in time (from the current point) and all other instances happened prior to this.

| Joe | Jack | Jim | John |

Here [Joe, Jack, Jim, John] are former husbands but only [John] is the last one.

When you look at the context (former, only and last) then the last also indicates that the person in question is referring to the future: there will not be another husband after this point in time.

Also, would "former and only" suffice to express this idea?

Without explicitly adding the last there is ambiguity about whether or not you mean that it was the only husband so far or forever.

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former – (adjective) having once, or previously, been

last – (adjective) coming after all others in a series

Former means he was previously her husband but is now not. Last means there she will take no more husbands in the future.

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    Yes, but it's worth mentioning that last can also have the more specific subsense coming after all others in a series extending up to but not including the present. As in, "I admit my last comment was complete rubbish, but this next one is absolutely brilliant". – FumbleFingers May 19 '14 at 21:55
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    To say he was her former and only husband already implies he was her last husband in the sense of being the most recent previous husband, so last here would only be used to mean last in the sense that he is her final husband - assuming it's not a poorly worded tautology. – Neil W May 19 '14 at 22:14
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    very true. good points. – eso May 19 '14 at 22:15
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I believe "my former, only and last husband" does not necessarily indicate the speaker will take no husbands in future -that is just not Shakespearean!

Former husband: they were in fact married once but no longer are betrothed

Last husband: he was indeed the last she married but it may or may not address the future, but only her intent.

IRL, Elizabeth Taylor often referred to Richard Burton as both a former husband, and her last husband (twice). A novel is a novel is a novel, and depending on the emphasis by the character, stating this man is her "my former, only and last husband" is a hint of foreshadowing.

As for would "former and only" suffice to express this idea?, it could, if she was exhaling her last breath

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