Consider the following example sentence excerpted from Oxford Learner's Dictionaries:

One of the smaller parties came a close second (= nearly won).

Much to my surprise, the example sentence is placed under the adverb entry, rather than the noun entry, of second, by the authors of the authoritative dictionary.

I just wonder: If second here is an adverb, why is the article a in front of it?

Any help will be highly appreciated, thanks in advance.

  • 1
    I don't think the verb came is used transitively in your example. Rather, it's a linking verb and second is a subject complement (a noun here, not an adverb). a and close can then be treated as modifiers of second.
    – user405662
    Commented Jun 10 at 6:36
  • 1
    @user05662 Not a linking verb, I think, but simply an intransitive verb (used as a synonym for "finished"), with "a close second" as an adverbial phrase.
    – chepner
    Commented Jun 10 at 15:50
  • @chepner Yes, it makes more sense to say that it's an intransitive verb.
    – user405662
    Commented Jun 10 at 18:01

3 Answers 3


[One of the smaller parties] came a close second.

Ordinal numbers like "first, second, third etc" are usually adjectives, but they can exceptionally be nouns, as evidenced by the presence of some determiner like the article "a".

"Second" is then modified by the adjective "close" to give the idiomatic noun phrase "a close second", functioning as predicative complement of "came".

  • I've rephrased my question in the original post, pls review it. Thanks for your kind help.
    – xmllmx
    Commented Jun 10 at 7:41
  • 2
    @xmllmx Your rephrased question changes nothing. My answer still holds.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 10 at 7:46
  • According to you, sound is a noun here. However, the dictionary counts it as an adverb; which confused me. Does it mean the authors of the dictionary make a mistake?
    – xmllmx
    Commented Jun 10 at 7:48
  • 2
    @xmllmx Don't rely on dictionaries for grammar. Consult a standard grammar book instead. Dictionaries can often be misleading in matters of grammar (as this example shows.)
    – user405662
    Commented Jun 10 at 7:50
  • 6
    @xmllmx "Second" is a noun. It must be because it has the article "a" as determiner. The dictionary is wrong.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 10 at 7:59

The article "a" is used with nouns, so "second" can't be an adverb. "Second" in "the second" is a noun; however "a second" has no meaning when "second" is a noun; a meaning can't be deduced from the meaning of "a" and "second" since there is only one thing or person in the second place; we are bound to conclude that "a close second" can't be analysed, that is to say, it is a fixed phrase and should be in an idiom section. Since "a" is used it can be considered that "second" is a noun and the expression should be found in the idiom section under the noun.

  • 2
    @xmllmx I can't explain this otherwise than by an error in the lexicographical work. It is rare but it does happen.
    – LPH
    Commented Jun 10 at 8:09
  • 3
    @xmllmx It's not an error. It's just an omission, which always happens in mere learners' dictionaries. Those are always abridged for brevity and clarity. You need something that isn't abridged; the OED shows it as a noun in certain instances.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 10 at 11:51
  • 2
    So it's a full moon today is also an idiom, because there's only one moon? This is not the way English works. Commented Jun 10 at 12:18
  • 1
    And don't forget a distant last.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 10 at 21:09
  • 1
    Except 'a close second' is not a set phrase: a distant second, a solid second, a poor second, etc. Are these all then idioms? Not to mention that 'a second' has perfectly good meaning: The Phantom started three times in the big one with his best results being a second to Kingston Rule in 1990 after finishing fourth to Tawriffic the previous year Racing News. Hardly an idiom.
    – DW256
    Commented Jun 11 at 4:51

I think that the word "second" here is a "flat adverb". In this context, it can be used interchangeably with "secondly".

See flat adverb on Wikipedia:

In English grammar, a flat adverb, bare adverb, or simple adverb is an adverb that has the same form as the corresponding adjective, so it usually does not end in -ly, e.g. "drive slow", "drive fast", "dress smart", etc. The term includes words that naturally end in -ly in both forms, e.g. "drive friendly". Flat adverbs were once quite common but have been largely replaced by their -ly counterparts. [...] Numerical adjectives (first, second, last) rarely are used in an -ly form despite having a valid alternative. While words like firstly and lastly exist, their flat form is much more commonly used. Here, in contrast to other flat adverbs such as good ("they cook good"), the flat form is universally accepted in English as proper speech.

  • 1
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    – Community Bot
    Commented Jun 10 at 16:45
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    – livresque
    Commented Jun 10 at 17:54
  • The question is: why is it classified as an adverb at all, which seems grammatically wrong. Commented Jun 12 at 10:12

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