last/past

On the Baltimore Sun blog on the 4th, a piece by John McIntyre on last and past, “Not, unfortunately, the last word”, beginning:

No sooner do I put up a post about copy editors’ preoccupation with dog-whistle distinctions than someone turns up commenting on a post from 2011 on the newspaper last/past crotchet

What’s at issue is the ambiguity of last.

From NOAD2, which has two relevant senses:

[a] coming after all others in time or order; final: they caught the last bus

[b] most recent in time; latest: last year

It’s possible to concoct examples that are ambiguous out of context (In the last year, the company was successful), but as MacIntyre points out, virtually all examples are clear in context, and in addtion the [b] sense is attested in the OED from 1377 on. MacIntyre goes on:

It may strike you as significant that this supposed distinction is not addressed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Theodore Bernstein’s Careful Writer, and John Bremner’s Words on Words. In fact, the Associated Press Stylebook says merely, “Avoid the use of last as a synonym for latest if it might imply finality.” That is, since I appear to have to spell it out, if last is clear in context, leave it the hell alone, even in AP Style.

What’s at issue here is the idea that potential ambiguity must be avoided, so if there’s an alternative that lacks the potential ambiguity, it must be used; hence, the [b] use of last is impermissible.

On previous occasions — most notably in “Avoiding potential ambiguity: Does it improve clarity?” (Language Log, 6/2/08)  — I’ve argued that this is an enormously silly idea, running quite contrary to the way language is actually used. In particular, it disregards the fact that the interpretation of expressions always depends on context (linguistic and otherwise), expectations, real-world knowledge, discourse organization, and other pragmatic factors.

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