Posted by: Jack Henry | June 6, 2017

Editor’s Corner: The Ultimate Misused Word

Can you spot the error in the following sentences?

· "Christopher Reeve portrayed Clark Kent, the penultimate middle America boy."

· "Many hard-core fans regard Van Halen’s debut album as the band’s penultimate contribution to the hard rock world."

· "You are faced with making the penultimate decision: Do I still want to be friends with a liar?"

If you noticed that they all misuse the word penultimate, you’re right. Penultimate means "next to the last." These writers should have used the word ultimate, which means "best" or "most extreme."

Penultimate comes from Latin paene ("almost") and ultimatus ("last"). You can also find the root paene in the word peninsula ("almost an island").

Some people have continued stringing together Latin prefixes to make fancy terms for third to last, fourth to last, and fifth to last:

· first

· second

· third

· …

· propreantepenultimate (fifth to last)

· preantepenultimate (fourth to last)

· antepenultimate (third to last)

· penultimate (second to last)

· ultimate (last)

I recommend avoiding these words. Penultimate causes enough trouble already.

Here are some correct uses of penultimate, taken from recent news stories:

· "Dutchman Tom Dumoulin limited his losses in the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday." – Reuters
[On the second-to-last day of the Italian bicycle race, Dumoulin fell further behind the leader, Nairo Quintana, but not by much.]

· "Penultimate Day of Elementary School Is Filled with Fun" – Oskaloosa Herald
[On the second-to-last day of school, students played on inflatable slides and ate snow cones.]

· "Warning: This story contains spoilers for the penultimate episode of HBO’s The Leftovers." – Hollywood Reporter
[The second-to-last episode of the TV series aired on May 28.]

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar®
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  1. […] system!” But penultimate doesn’t mean “the very best.” [KC – See Ben’s article from June 6, 2017.] Derived from the Latin paene, “almost,” and ultimus, “last,” penultimate actually means […]

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