Finishing last?

Photo: U.S. Navy

A gathering of copy editors led to an exchange of pet peeves. “I hate it when someone writes ‘in the last three months,’ ” one said. “I always change it to ‘in the past few months.’ ” A student inquired as to the reason. “Because ‘last’ means there will be no more months,” the copy editor replied, slightly dismissively. “Look it up.”

OK, let’s look it up.

“Last” as an adjective means “following all the rest,” as in “he was the last one out,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says, or “being the only remaining,” as in “our last dollar.” But there’s a usage note as well: “Last applies to something that comes at the end of a series but does not always imply that the series is completed or stopped.”

The copy editor had fallen into the myth pit: Somewhere, someone had perpetuated the myth that “last” could be used only for something that is done, not for something merely in the past.

As others have written, the difference between “last” and “past” rarely matters when one is speaking of the most recent, um, past. Changing “the last three months” to “the past few months” tends to be knee-jerk editing, not thoughtful substitution. Better to use the time for something more valuable, or something truly incorrect.

The Associated Press Stylebook seems to agree. In an “Ask the Editor” question about the uses of “last” or “past” in reference to time periods, the AP says: “Past is preferable in such formulations, though last isn’t wrong.”

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“Preferable” does not mean “mandatory.”

That is not, however, the “last” word on “last.” There’s also the distinction between “last” and “latest.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, in Watch Your Language, argued: “ ‘Last’ has the connotation of final,” in a sentence like “The shooting was the last in the series of outbreaks that has stirred civic action to cut juvenile crime.” (Emphasis added) “Make it ‘latest,’ ” Bernstein said.

The Associated Press Stylebook agrees:

Avoid the use of last as a synonym for latest if it might imply finality. The last time it rained, I forgot my umbrella, is acceptable. But: The last announcement was made at noon may leave the reader wondering whether the announcement was the final announcement, or whether others are to follow.

Note that this is not a blanket admonition to use “latest” instead of “last,” though some writers and editors take it that way. “Last” won’t confuse anyone, most of the time. But if you write, “In his last book, James Patterson wrote …” some readers may think you are implying that James Patterson does not plan to write any more books, which could upset Alex Cross fans. Instead, it’s better to say, “In his latest book, James Patterson wrote … .” Of course, if it’s pretty sure there will be no more, you could say, “In her last book, Postern of Fate, Agatha Christie wrote … ” Or even “In her final book,” to emphasize the, um, finality.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes up the cause, saying the difference is immaterial in most cases, especially if the audience isn’t aware of the nuance: “However careful you are to discriminate between last and latest, you cannot be sure that your reader or listener will realize that you have done so.”

Is there a difference between “latest” and “most recent”? Not really, though “latest” takes up less space.

Next week, we’ll have the latest look at other “last” words.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.