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.]