Pet Peeve: "Penultimate"

by sbh on Thursday - 17 January 2008

in Uncategorized

Annoyed

OK, we’ve all got some pet peeves. As a writer, I am often annoyed when I see words misused. I understand mixing up “there”, “their”, and “they’re” — I do it myself. Homophones happen. What I can’t understand is the blatant incorrect use of words, typically because the author doesn’t really know what they mean.

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This morning as I was sifting through my RSS feeds, separating the wheat from the chaff, I came across an article (which shall remain nameless…all about protecting the innocent here at sbh*) in which the word “penultimate” was used as a substitute for “ultimate”–as if “penultimate” were better than, or represented a higher degree of “ultimate.”

bq. penultimate |peˈnəltəmit| adjective [ attrib. ]
last but one in a series of things; second to the last : _the penultimate chapter of the book_.

ORIGIN late 17th cent.: from Latin _paenultimus_, from _paene_ ‘almost’ + _ultimus_ ‘last,’ on the pattern of _ultimate_.

Thanks _Oxford American_!

“Penultimate” does not express some greater degree of _ultimate-ness_. Rather, it simply means “next to last,” or “the ultimate thing, other than that thing over there which is clearly more ultimate.” Notice the Latin root _paene_: “almost.” The penultimate item is the “almost ultimate” item in a list.

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In the end, I am reminded of what my wife was always telling kids in day care who preferred to grunt and gesture: “Use your words.” But, please, use them correctly.

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