Penultimate and Ultimate

Commonly Confused Words

penultimate and ultimate
"The ultimate is preceded by the penultimate or to use a similar concept from the world of sports: first comes the semifinal, then the final" (Paul Spanring, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Arnold Koster, 2013).

The words penultimate and ultimate have related meanings, but they're not synonyms.
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Definitions

As both an adjective and a noun, penultimate means next to the last. (Penultimate is not more ultimate than ultimate. See the usage notes below.)

The adjective ultimate means last, final, elemental, fundamental, or maximum. As a noun, ultimate refers to a final point or result.

Examples

  • "My penultimate item is that term ends on April 13th, and reports and class lists should be in my office one week before then. And the final item: I move that we all adjourn to my sitting-room for a glass of sherry."
    (Robert Barnard, A School for Murder, 2013)

     
  • "The Solar Impulse 2 landed in Cairo on Wednesday for its penultimate stop as the solar-powered plane nears the end of its marathon tour around the world. After the two-day flight from Spain, just one final leg lies between it and its final destination, Abu Dhabi, where it started its odyssey in March last year."
    ("Solar Impulse 2 Lands in Egypt in Penultimate Stop of Its World Tour." The Guardian [UK], July 13, 2016)
     
  • "For a great many Americans, the ultimate dream car has long been the Cadillac."
    (Mark Laver, Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning. Routledge, 2015)

     
  • "Vampires have attained the ultimate in Romantic transcendence: immortality and the continual reenactment of suicide."
    (Atara Stein, The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television, 2009)
     
  • "It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming."
    (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1988)


    Usage Notes

    • "Properly used, penultimate means 'next to last,' as the penultimate game of the season and the penultimate syllable in a word. It is sometimes used incorrectly where the word ultimate is called for, especially when meaning 'representing or exhibiting the greatest possible development or sophistication,' as in This car is the penultimate in engineering and design. This mistake may reflect the misconception that pen- is a prefix that acts as an intensifier of the word ultimate. But pen- actually derives from the Latin word paene, meaning 'almost.' (Pen- is also found in the word peninsula, which means, etymologically at least, 'almost an island.') People who know the correct meaning of penultimate reject its use as a synonym of ultimate and may be disposed to view the speaker or writer as ignorant or even pretentious."
      (The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin, 2005)
       
    • "'The concert was awesome. It was, like, the penultimate entertainment!' I had read the word penultimate somewhere and decided it was, like, an even more extreme version of ultimate. My acting professor Rick Seer cocked his head at a funny angle and said, 'Um, penultimate means second to last. Not super-ultimate.' Making it up as I went along had failed me there. Horribly, mortifyingly failed me."
      (Krista Vernoff, The Game On! Diet. William Morrow, 2009)
       
    • "Something cannot be more ultimate than something else, and very ultimate sounds ghastly. So, what do people do if they want to be emphatic—and let's face it, most of us exaggerate. How do we convey the idea that something really is matchless, out-of-this-world greatest?

      "It seems that penultimate is currently being recruited for the purpose. This is an interesting development because, if the change does take hold, it's going to turn the orthodox meaning of penultimate on its head. In origin, penultimate comes from the Latin paene, meaning 'almost,' plus ultimas 'last.' So penultimate means literally 'almost last.' This new colloquial usage now takes it 'beyond last'—to refer to something beyond all others. . . .

      "The use of penultimate to mean 'the absolute greatest' is probably best described as a malapropism . . .. A malapropism occurs where speakers substitute a word erroneously because of a similarity in pronunciation (or because of a shared element of meaning)."
      (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)


      Practice

      (a) "He leaned over and kissed Mary on the lips, the _____ item on his list. All that remained was walking out the door."
      (David Marusek, Mind Over Ship, 2010)

      (b) "The president is the _____ decision maker in military matters. Everywhere the president goes, so too goes the 'football'—a briefcase filled with all of the codes necessary to order a nuclear attack. Only the president has the power to order the use of nuclear force."
      (American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials, 2010)

      Answers to Practice Exercises

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

      Answers to Practice Exercises: Penultimate and Ultimate

      (a) "He leaned over and kissed Mary on the lips, the penultimate item on his list. All that remained was walking out the door."
      (David Marusek, Mind Over Ship, 2010)

      (b) "The president is the ultimate decision maker in military matters. Everywhere the president goes, so too goes the 'football'—a briefcase filled with all of the codes necessary to order a nuclear attack.

      Only the president has the power to order the use of nuclear force."
      (American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials, 2010)

       

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "Penultimate and Ultimate." ThoughtCo, Nov. 10, 2016, thoughtco.com/penultimate-and-ultimate-1689460. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, November 10). Penultimate and Ultimate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/penultimate-and-ultimate-1689460 Nordquist, Richard. "Penultimate and Ultimate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/penultimate-and-ultimate-1689460 (accessed January 23, 2018).