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Adjectives, numbers, and determiners have a set order when multiples are used to reference the same noun at once. When cardinal and ordinal numbers are used at the same time, the ordinal always comes first.

However, there are some words that seem to function as ordinals but which seem to be flexible in their order while the equivalent (true) ordinal is not:

The three remaining cookies. - or - The remaining three cookies.

The last three cookies. - but NOT - The three last cookies.


The three initial cookies. - or - The initial three cookies.

The first three cookies. - but NOT - The three first cookies.


The three subsequent cookies. - or - The subsequent three cookies.

The next/following three cookies. - but NOT - The three next/following cookies.

Why do these words that function as ordinals have greater flexibility than their ordinal equivalents?

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    I don't agree that the NOT versions are never used. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jan 10 at 21:00
  • @Jason You're probably right that we can't say "never" with full confidence, but those orderings are not correct according to the sources I linked and they certainly sound "off" to me, whereas the other formations do not. (Admittedly, that's a very subjective litmus test.) – rpeinhardt Jan 10 at 21:09
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    Probably because all three cookies are remaining, but only one of them can be last. So "the last three cookies" is the last group of three cookies, but "the three last cookies" sounds like an oxymoron. – michael.hor257k Jan 10 at 21:14
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    I think some of these sound "off" with cookies, but if you replace "cookies" with "people in line" they sound normal. – shakeypress Jan 10 at 21:17
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    @michael.hor257k Your comment answers the question perfectly: only one cookie can be the first, the last or the next (there can't be three that are the first, the last or the next ones at the same time). In that position, first, last, next modify the noun phrase formed by "three + cookies" (respectively meaning the first, the last and the next set of three cookies). – Gustavson Jan 10 at 23:45
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Michael.hor257k has summed this up perfectly:

Probably because all three cookies are remaining, but only one of them can be last. So "the last three cookies" is the last group of three cookies, but "the three last cookies" sounds like an oxymoron.

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