Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 16: One Thing Leads to Another

"It's wonderful! It's fantastic! It's the penultimate film of the year!"

Wait a minute... the penultimate film of the year? That's probably supposed to sound like it's a good thing, but in reality, it's not.

Sometimes in writing and speaking we run out of adjectives to describe things that are really great. When we've used synonyms for "most" and "best" and "greatest" often enough, it's hard to convey that next layer of awesomeness without ratcheting it up a notch.

So we dip into the reservoir of overused adjectives like "brilliant" and "awesome" and-strapped for something to intensify those words-we just put a swear word in front of them. But using that formula is rather inappropriate in a lot of situations.

It's the literary equivalent of "this one goes to eleven."

The word penultimate as a slang word seems to have worked its way into common parlance thanks to the slang use of the word ultimate. As a slang term, ultimate means cool rather than last. So the hipster logic may have concluded that if ultimate means cool, then penultimate must mean super cool. If only that were so.

Penultimate actually means second to last. The word is derived from penult, which on its own means the second-to-last syllable in a word. Used correctly, it works best in circumstances describing an order of things. For example,
Julie's penultimate move completely isolated my king and it determined that she would win the chess game.

The penultimate chapter in the final Harry Potter book answered a lot of questions.

Despite my lack of training, I was the penultimate finisher in the marathon. At least I wasn't dead last.
So in describing something as the penultimate film of the year, one would hope that it's not, say, July. Either that or the ultimate film of the year is really worth the wait.

Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Songs from this Episode: "One Thing Leads to Another" by The Fixx; "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls; "Eruption" by Van Halen.

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