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I work at an ESL school and my students were taking an exam that asked them to unscramble words into a sentence. The result (as given by the answer key) was:

Jessica was the last person to arrive at school.

However, one of my students wrote the sentence:

Jessica was the last person at school to arrive.

I told my co-teacher that I thought this construction was also correct and that the student should get credit for his answer. Is the second sentence also correct?

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    Your second version is syntactically correct, but doesn't mean the same as the first. It means that of all the people who arrived (anywhere, not necessarily a school) Jessica was the last one who was actually "at school" (i.e. - a schoolgirl). Others who might have arrived later than Jessica weren't schoolchildren. As is normal in English, adverbial elements such as at school apply by default to the immediately-preceding noun or verb. Dec 14, 2018 at 16:33
  • Thanks for the comment. The task was simply to form a correct sentence, so I wasn't too worried about intention or meaning.
    – trident
    Dec 14, 2018 at 16:36
  • Each question must be judged on its merits, but most likely anything else you want to ask would be better posted on English Language Learners (to where I have voted to migrate this question). Dec 14, 2018 at 16:39
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    @FumbleFingers I have a slight problem with this. Whatever the adverb phrase ‘at school’ modifies, it is surely not the verb ‘was’, but the the noun ‘person’. It would be equivalent to “...was the last person <of those> at school...”. Wouldn’t it in any case a rather odd way to put it? You might say “... last person IN THE SCHOOL to arrive”.
    – Tuffy
    Dec 14, 2018 at 17:46
  • @Tuffy: Hmm. How would you contrive a context where Jessica was at school the last person to arrive might be credible? I'd say that could make sense if we suppose we're being told that back when she was at school, Jessica was [habitually] the last person to arrive [every morning, perhaps]. And it seems to me that adverbial "at school" would be modifying was in that construction. Dec 14, 2018 at 18:03

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Both sentences are grammatical.


So, too, are these additional sentences formed from the same words (assuming that meaning doesn't matter and that punctuation and grammar isn't forced):

The last person to arrive at school was Jessica.
The last person at school to arrive was Jessica.
At school was Jessica, the last person to arrive.
At school, the last person to arrive was Jessica.
Was Jessica the last person to arrive at school?
Was Jessica, the last person to arrive, at school?
Was the last person to arrive at school Jessica?

Other grammatical sentences could be formed, but they might be nonsensical.

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