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All dictionaries I have looked at give the sole meaning of second to last as next to last (or penultimate and, in BrE, also second last). However, second to last is also used to mean what most folks call the third to last item in a series, especially in technical/scientific usage (see examples below). Can anyone provide documentation of this meaning in a reference work or do dictionaries omit this usage because they judge it to be incorrect (and if so, why not include it with a usage note)? I do not think previous related questions document this meaning adequately.

Related ELU/ELL questions:

"Usage of "second/third/fourth ... last"

Are there any differences between "penultimate", "the last but one" and "second to last"?

"Second-to-last vs second-to-previous"


Dictionaries with second to/from last meaning only next to last or penultmate:

m-w and m-w

Wiktionary

vocabulary.com

Macmillan

last

With the or possessive and an ordinal number. The one(s) the specified number of places from the end of a series. With of.

The year 1624, the second last of his life, was thus spent by Kin James, in [etc.]
She was the third-last of thirteen children. OED


Examples from Google Books where second to last and next to last are not the same i.e., second to last = third to last (in the usual meaning, or antepenultimate.

Modified Lag Task (Nback)
The task used in the present study was developed by Shelton et al. (2007). In this task, participants saw lists of 4 or 6 words and were asked to recall either the last, next to last (1-back), second to last (2-back), or third to last word (3-back) presented in the list J. T. Shelton, et al.; "A Comparison of Laboratory and Clinical Working Memory Tests and Their Prediction of Fluid Intelligence"; Intelligence, May 1, 2009

When the exact number of an instar is not known, it is often convenient to refer to these with terms such as middle, antepenultimate (second to last), penultimate (next to last), and/or ultimate instars. David L. Wagner; Catepillars of Eastern North America p.13 (2010)

Accent. For most scientific words, the accent is either on the next to last syllable or on the second to last syllable:

a. The accent is on the next to last syllable:
(1) When the word contains only two syllables; algae (AL·gae).
...
b. In all other cases, the accent is place on the "second" to last syllable (ar·TI·cul·lus)...

Anthony M. Belmont; Acquiring a Scientific Vocabulary p.23 (2019)

S          second to last hour
T S      next to last hour
U T S  last hour

Gregg DeYoung in Helaine Selin, ed.; Astronomy Across Cultures p. 484 (2021)

Rule C ('two bounce' rule). Have at least 3 searches; stop if both the last quote and the next to the last are larger than the second to the last. Peter E. Earl; Behavioural Economics, Vol. 1, p.168

... the local collections are formed using first, second, and third window, and second to last, next to last, and last window, respectively... Genome Research Vol. 14, p.706 (2004)

The cautionary instruction failed to cover the next to last and second to last prior questions to which responses indeed had been given and which contained the prosecutor's accusatory statements. Reports of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of the State of Oregon, p.25 (1996)

Missing values are more common for the next-to-last births and especially the second-to-last births before... An Assessment of the Quality of Health Data in DHS-I Surveys, p.85 (1994)

The first digit gives the number of electrons in the last (outermost) shell..., the next two digits give the number of electrons in the next to last shell.., and the final two decimal digits give the number of electrons in the second to last shells... K. B. Lipkowitz et al. Reviews in Computational Chemistry, Vol. 20, p.293

(a) Last
(b) Next to last
(c) Second to last
Guide to Port Entry, Vol. 2, p.48 (2001)

As the last stage of this chain of full buffers completes its send command it waits a time BL before receiving its next token and unblocking the next to last stage of the chain. This stage then waits an additional time BL before the next token arrives, and the receipt of this token unblocks the second to last stage. This continues until the end of the chain... P. A. Beerel et al. A Designer's Guide to Asynchronous VLSI, p.71 (2010)

...the most weight was placed upon the last stage, followed by next to last, second to last, etc. The staging algorithm that we propose... The application of decomposition to transportation network (snippet)

"It doesn't matter anyway. You called second to last; I called next to last. That means I go after you."
"You're crazy! Next to last and second to last are the same thing," Ronny countered fervently.
You're the crazy one!" Billy shouted, his steel-blue eyes radiating fire. "It goes last, first to last—that's the same as next to last— and then comes second to last."
"You always have to have things your own way!" Ronny proclaimed without exaggeration. Bill Sullivan; Eleven Miles South of Half Moon Bay, p.33

enter image description here These results are read from the frame F by starting with the last row of two boxes indicating a 2-cycle, the next to last row of two boxes indicating a second 2-cycle, the second from last row of three boxes indicating a 3-cycle, and finally the first row of four boxes indicating a 4-cycle. S. Keown; An Intoduction to Group Representation Theory (1975)

Photo 3 is the last mold; photo 2 next to last; and photo 1 second to last Transactions of the American Society for Steel Treating, p.390 (1924)

Rotation periods
Last ending in 1927 / Next to last / Second to last / Third to last / Fourth to last
B. Koehler et al.; Effect of Sec, Length of Feeding period..., p. 474 and repeated on p. 475 (1930)

Third from last row added ...
Second from last row added ...
Next to last row added ...
Last row added ...
Edward L. Thorndike, "The Curve of Work" in Psychological Review Vol. 19 (1912)

WORK EXPERIENCE [Form]
Job 1—Last or present position
Job 2—Next to last position
Job 3—Second to last position
N.Y. State Restaurant Association and E. Curtis; How to Cut Labor Costs, p.21 (1949)

(I've also found examples in U.S. and Canadian patents; however, the url links to the Google Book snippets aren't stable, so I've omitted them.)


A fair number of dictionaries don't have an entry for "second to last," which may foster to-each-their-own usage. The above examples essentially self-define how the authors are using the expression, even if incorrectly. My own hunch is that some may assume that because there are two well-known expressions, next to last and second to last, they must mean different things. The logic seems to be:

Next to last is considered to be the first from the last (although we don't usually say this) or penultimate

Second to/from last (Wikitionary has both) is therefore the next item, or the antepenultimate.

------------ EDIT 19/13/21 ---------------

This reasoning is explicitly stated in the first example's "NBack" Task" added today: next to last (1-back), second to last (2-back), or third to last word (3-back)

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    How rare is this usage? I bet people spell they're as their much more often than they use second to last to mean antepenultimate. I don't think dictionaries aren't required to document errors, unless they become widespread enough to become accepted. Oct 9, 2021 at 12:49
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    @PeterShor That is another way of asking the question. I thought I was in a small minority for whom second to last is not next to last. However, it does not appear to be uncommon. Unfortunately, you can't use nGram, since you have to examine each case. I looked for examples that had both with different meanings. I would think this at least merits a usage note if it's considered incorrect.
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 9, 2021 at 12:53
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    I don't recall ever hearing anybody using second to last to mean third to last. But maybe I wouldn't have noticed. Oct 9, 2021 at 12:58
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    I think it's fair to say that this usage may stem from authors' (and editors') misunderstanding, but these examples are certainly not typos or the kind of carelessness/hastiness that results in they're/their mistakes.
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 9, 2021 at 13:59
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    A not-too-dissimilar case is next Friday. When someone says it early in the week I always ask if they mean this Friday or next Friday --I don't know whether they are using "next" to refer to weeks or Fridays.
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:22

1 Answer 1

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There are two competing logics at play, rank and counting from the end. Those logics, combined with the specific usage next to last, result in applying second to last to mean antepenultimate.

Logic 1: Rank

Conventionally, second to last would count down from last:

  • Last
  • Second to last
  • Third to last

A second to last option is literally second only to the last position. That is the most common understanding of the phrase. We don't really say first to last, perhaps because it imposes a logical absurdity (if one were more last than last, one would be last).

Logic 2: Counting from the End

In many of the examples you show, they count backward from the end and treat the end as a standalone value. For example, the terms ultimate, penultimate, and antepenultimate form this kind of scale:

  • Ultimate (the last)
  • Penultimate (nearly the last)
  • Antepenultimate (before nearly the last)

These words aren't strictly counting, but they illustrate how one could count using ordinals:

  • The last
  • First from last
  • Second from last

I use from here to indicate that the counting has shifted. This is no longer A to B (what A is to B - second to B, third to B, etc.) but A from B (how far A is from B). The use of second here remains valid, but the method of counting has shifted from a measure of rank to a measure of positional distance.

Why To?

That still leaves the question of why to may be used instead of from in your examples. Notice the use of next to last. Next to is a very common collocation, and next to last is a common way to count from the end (Logic 2), even if it uses to (Logic 1). If someone has started counting from the end this way, and then they have to say what comes after next to last, then it may sound better to writers or editors to stay with the to and continue the count than to switch to second from last or abandon the ordinal entirely:

  • Last
  • Next to last
  • *Second to last

Consistency with the preposition is likely why the usages you present occur with next to last and why switching to second from last after next to last is much rarer.

Why Don't Dictionaries Document This?

What I've just elaborated is focused not on a single word but on differences in usage and semantics centered around one specific use case (next to last). Many dictionaries (including the Oxford English Dictionary) don't list second to last, second from last, or even second last. To the hard-nosed dictionaries, such phrases are beneath the notice of a publication focused primarily on words. So higher order notes on phrasal usage are also likely to be absent.

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    The Wiktionary link above documents both"second to" and "second from". Your logic is essentially the one I outlined in the question: the item that is next to the last is indeed the second overall from the end, but it also the first from/counting back from the last". This is the "original sin," so to speak. After the first comes the second. I have no gripe with dictionaries that omit "second to last"--only those that include it with no mention of the other use. I'm hoping for some grammar or webpage that comments on the usage discrepancy between round- and flat-earthers.
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 12, 2021 at 14:38
  • The OED does, in fact, include second last, third last, etc.. I've added their definition to the question.
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 12, 2021 at 15:57

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