The Language Perfectionist: Ultimately, Don’t Misuse This Word

What’s wrong with the following sentence (found in a pop music review)?

“If you affiliate in any way with the underground scene, you’d be remiss in not going to Lipgloss. It’s the penultimate hipster haven in Denver….”

The reviewer clearly thinks Lipgloss is a cool club. But the word he wants isn’t penultimate — which means “next to last.”

This error is frequently committed. For some reason, people assume that penultimate means perfect, quintessential, the best. But “next to last” hardly conveys that meaning. It’s also best to avoid ultimate as a superlative because it literally means “last in a series.”

To convey a high opinion, you have a host of alternatives, including excellent, first-rate, superior, unequalled, and unparalleled.

Of course, if you really do mean “next to last,” by all means say penultimate. The word is used correctly in this sentence:

“The penultimate chapter, titled ‘Conservation,’ offers seven case histories of fishes that are endangered or have become extinct….”

By the way, you might one day find occasion to use antepenultimate, which means “next to next to last.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.