Word of the Week! Penultimate

This post will run the final week of classes, but it is really the penultimate week for academic work here: do not forget your final exam week, students!

The word itself has a decidedly academic “look” to it, but I find it used as often in journals of ideas such as The Atlantic Monthly. I brought doughnuts to class today, our next-to-last writing workshop of the semester. For that penultimate class, however, I would never ask  “who ate the penultimate doughnut”?

The OED Online, online or in print, gives our word first as a noun, a form I rarely see in formal usage today. The adjectival form appears far more often, though I had never before encountered the now rare mathematical use meaning “Relating to or designating a member of a family of curves that is arbitrarily close to a degenerate form.”

A Merriam-Webster post points out a usage error for this term. Never use it in formal writing to mean “last.” Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage seconds that opinion. The word gets employed to mean “the best of the best” but that usage is also incorrect. Our word always means “next to last.”  I could see it being acceptable in casual usage as “the best for now, until something better arrives to replace it.”

The final word remains out on penultimate; in a century, it may mean exactly “the best, so far,” until a better word shows up.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Word of the Week! Penultimate”

  1. Your posts, delivered via Monday SpiderByte, bring extra joy to Mondays; Mondays are a great day for extra joy. Thank you. Will you continue over the summer? Regardless, please consider “signage” as a subject. I would love a reason to relax when I hear it… As it is, I bristle because it seems like a pretentious but unnecessary version of “signs”.

  2. Lee, let’s see if Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage offers any help with “Signage.” He is silent, as is The American Heritage Dictionary. So the word is formally acceptable to usage authorities, but it’s not very pretty, is it?

    I’d call it a “Pet Peeve” of yours, and if you teach writing, put it on a list of house rules. I do that with “comfort zone” and “society” when the latter gets used as a subject: “Society believes…” We must live in utopia (or a nightmare, you pick) if all the billions of us believe the same thing.

    By the way, I’ll continue all summer. I’m working on an anthology with a co-editor and I need something else to do for a change of pace, such as. . . more writing!

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