What to Know
Penultimate means “next to last.” Sometimes it is used erroneously as if it referred to something beyond ultimate, meaning “the very best,” but the prefix pen- means “almost.” Penultimate can seem like a superlative version of ultimate, but it isn’t.
If you hear someone say “that pizza was the penultimate” or “my uncle is the penultimate gift-giver,” you could think from the context that penultimate means “the very best.” It sounds like it means “the super-ultimate” or the “extra-ultimate,” as in the very last, very latest, or very best thing.
But penultimate means “next to last” or “second to last.” It’s probably because it adds an emphatic extra syllable to the word ultimate that people think it somehow means “more” than ultimate—but it really means less. Used correctly, you can say “the penultimate scene of a play” or “the penultimate line of a poem” or “the film’s penultimate shot.” It’s a formal or literary way of saying “next to last.”
The word ultimate itself comes from the Latin word for “last, final, or farthest.” The pen- part of penultimate is simply the Latin prefix that means “almost,” so the word literally means “almost last.”
There’s also the word penult (pronounced PEE-nult), which means “the next-to-last member of a series,” or “the next to last syllable of a word.” In the word presentation, for example, the accent or stress is on the penult.
Another related word is antepenultimate (pronounced an-tih-pih-NUL-tuh-mut), which means “the third from the end.”