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We watched the last of the runners come in.

Can this mean two things? the last runner or the runners who came in towards the end of the race?

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While it would be possible for this to mean watching the final runner arrive at the finish, generally speaking, to watch the last of [something] means to watch the final group of things until the very end. In a race, perhaps there is a pack of racers near the end, or a few stragglers behind the rest of the runners, they would be the last of the runners, maybe the final 5-10%.

Note that there is also an idiom, to see/hear the last of [someone] which has a different meaning entirely. It is an expression used when you want to state that you will never see a person again (and usually to express that you are glad about that fact.) Basically it means that you've seen, or hope you've seen, someone for the last time ever.

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  • I agree. If this was referring to one runner only, the better way to say it is, "We watched the last runner come in."
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 10:15

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