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What does Penultimate Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Though many people mistakenly use the term penultimate to mean ultimate or greater than ultimate, it actually means second to last or next to last. Thus it is not the ultimate, but the next to ultimate. For instance, the second to last chapter in a book would be the penultimate chapter, or the second to last book in a series of books would the penultimate volume. The term is also used as a specialized term in linguistics to refer to the second to last syllable in a word.

In linguistics

The term penultimate is used in linguistics and in grammar books to refer to a particular syllable in a word: the penult or penultima. This is the second to last syllable in any word, such as "la" in "syllable". This comes in contrast to the antepenult, which is the syllable before the penult, and the ultima, which is the last syllable of any word. Using the word "syllable" as an example again, "sy" would be the antepenult, "la" would be the penult, and "ble" would be the ultima. Linguists often use these terms to point out where the stress should be on a word; for example, in American English the word "revelation" is stressed on the penultimate syllable.

In broader usage

Penultimate isn't just limited to grammar use though. It can be used to refer to anything that's the second-to-last in a series, like the second to last child in a family, the second to last passenger car on a train, or the second to last box of cereal left on a grocery store shelf. It can even be used to describe this paragraph, the second to last one in this article. The terms antepenult and ultima can also be used in daily life, but "ultimate" is more commonly used than "antepenultimate"

Often used incorrectly

Misuse of the word is extremely common, with people tending to use it to refer to something that's extremely great or far beyond ultimate. Some businesses even use the term penultimate in their advertising to make a product sound like it's even better than the ultimate version of the product, but this is a mistake.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Mar 12, 2021


Beg to differ. I personally think "second to last" and "three times" are better than penultimate and thrice, because it's how regular people talk in real life. In fact, I don't think I have ever heard of penultimate in real life unless it's used incorrectly to mean beyond ultimate. And "thrice" sounds like a word a great-grandfather would say.

By anon300125 — On Oct 28, 2012

Ultimate: last; Penultimate: second to last; Antepenultimate: third to last; Preantepenultimate: fourth to last. I think that's as far as it goes.

I absolutely hate it when people say "second to last" instead of "penultimate", like when some people say "three times" when they should be saying "thrice".

By anon239261 — On Jan 08, 2012

This was a great article. I am learning Arabic on my own and it seems there are fundamental stress differences in antepenult and penultimate depending on regional dialect and/or if the 2nd to last is a long vowel.

Looks like Careine dialect (Cairo) prefers penultimate while the western peninsula and Iraq prefer antepenult.

By anon158932 — On Mar 09, 2011

I find it impossible to stifle a chuckle or sneer when I hear people use "penultimate" to mean "greater than ultimate." Their obvious intent is to sound erudite, and they accomplish the exact opposite.

By anon91102 — On Jun 19, 2010

penultimate means the one before last.

By anon67449 — On Feb 24, 2010

If you read or hear penultimate check the date (of publication). if the date is within 20 years the author/speaker is (inarguably) a pompous idiot. As such, the word is extremely popular with pseudo-psycho-anal-ist twits and will commonly be found in said folks' works - from professional to amateur.

By ssbn608 — On Jun 15, 2009

Gee, I always thought that "penultimate" meant a Mont Blanc fountain pen!

By anon13431 — On May 27, 2008

Thank you so much, I am studying for an exam in English phonetics, and I was lost when it came to the syllable and its division into initial, antepenult, penultimate and final syllable, but this article really helped, and thanks for using the word penultimate as an example, now I can remember it.

Best regards me :)

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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