The Grammarphobia Blog

The “penultimate” peril

Q: I note that the adjective “penultimate” is now being used to mean most or greatest instead of next-to-last. As a lawyer, I use this word a lot. For example, I might write that something “shall be added to the end of the penultimate sentence of paragraph 3.” I’d be sorry to lose this useful word. Is it a lost cause?

A: I am shocked, shocked! “Penultimate” is such a nifty word. Although “next-to-last” (or “next-to-the-last”) is a perfectly fine expression, I’d sure hate to lose “penultimate.” I don’t believe this is a lost cause, though.

All the dictionaries I’ve checked, both online and off, still list next-to-last and a related linguistic usage as the only acceptable meanings. Also, the word was used correctly in nearly all the “penultimate” references I checked on the Web.

It’s good news too that the next-to-last book in the Lemony Snicket series is called The Penultimate Peril. I’m heartened that children are being introduced to the correct meaning of this helpful word.

“Penultimate” has been with us since the 17th century. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1677. It comes from the Latin word paenultimuspaene (almost) plus ultimus (last).

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