Word Confusion: Last vs Penultimate vs Ultimate

Posted August 7, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing


Gerald Welcom brought the issue of penultimate up, and the timing was perfect, as I needed to write up a new Word Confusion. (He also raised his frustration about writers confused about infamous, which you may want to explore at “Famous vs Infamous vs Notorious“, as a refresher *grin*.) It is infuriating when writers use words inappropriately…aaaand I must confess I always have to look this one up to make sure I got it right. It’s a good maxim to go by. If it’s a word you don’t frequently use, look it up. Make sure. Look good.

As a prefix, pen- originally came from the Latin paene meaning almost, nearly, which plays right in to that second from the last, the penultimate moment just before he dives, ultimately, into the churning waters.

Unfortunately, too many seem to believe that penultimate is a synonym for last, but penultimate is one before that ultimate last.

Now, last is quite the busy bee as an adjective, adverb, noun, and intransitive and transitive verb, but it always comes after the penultimate.

Ultimate may also be last, but more commonly, it’s associated with luxury. The best, the maximum, the highest one can go, and definitely the last in that best.

NOTE: As the comparison in this post on “Last vs Penultimate vs Ultimate”, I’m skipping the verbs in last.

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Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Last Penultimate Ultimate
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: penultimate and ultimate; Your Dictionary.com: penultimate

A wooden shoe last on an iron pivot

This shoe last in the “Salvator Church in Lower Bavaria” is Wolfgang Sauber’s own work under the GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 licenses, via Wikimedia Commons.

Book cover for The Two Towers

This cover of “The Two Towers” is courtesy of Goodreads and was the penultimate story in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’re not counting the “fourth”coming movie release.

A softly lit pier with gazebo at the end of it

“Your Pier” is courtesy of Alexis Day Agency

The ultimate in luxury is your own private pier on your own private beach.

Part of Grammar:
Attributive Adjective 1; Adverb 1; Noun
Plural for noun:
last 1
lasts 2
Attributive Adjective; Noun
Plural for noun: penultimates
Adjective; Noun
Plural for noun: ultimates
Coming after all others in time or order

  • Final
  • Met with or encountered after any others
  • The lowest in importance or rank
  • [the last] The least likely or suitable

Most recent in time

  • Latest
  • Immediately preceding in order
  • Previous in a sequence or enumeration

Only remaining

On the last occasion before the present

  • Previously

[In combination] After all others in order or sequence

[Especially in enumerating points] Finally

  • In conclusion

The last person or thing 1

  • The one occurring, mentioned, or acting after all others
  • [the last of] The only part of something that remains
  • [In singular] Last position in a race, contest, or ranking
  • [the last] The end or last moment, especially death
  • [the last] The last mention or sight of someone or something

A shoemaker’s model for shaping or repairing a shoe or boot 2

Next to the last

  • Last but one in a series of things
  • Second to the last

Of or relating to the next to the last syllable in a word

Anything that is next to the last, especially a penult

[Linguistics] A next-to-last syllable in a linguistic unit

[Card games] The second to lowest ranked card in a suit


  • Furthest or farthest
  • Ending a process or series


  • Decisive
  • Conclusive


  • Not subsidiary


  • Fundamental
  • Representing a limit beyond which further progress, as in investigation or analysis, is impossible

[Physics] Denoting the maximum possible strength or resistance beyond which an object breaks


  • Total

Not to be improved upon or surpassed

  • Greatest
  • Unsurpassed

The final point

The best, greatest, or most extreme of its kind

[the ultimate] The best achievable or imaginable of its kind

A final or fundamental fact or principle

[Also Ultimate; North American] Short for Ultimate Frisbee

They caught the last bus.

You can’t miss it; it’s the last house in the village.

Finishing in last place is not the end of the world.

[as complement] : he came last in the race.

Addicts are often the last people to face up to their problems.

The last thing she needed was a husband.

In reference to your letter of Sunday last…

No one realized it was to be their last album.

Now, this last point is critical.

He’s our last hope.

Oh, that was the last straw!

We’re coming up to last call, mates.

Poor bugger, he’s on his last legs.

He looked much older than when I’d last seen him.

And these are the two last-mentioned classes.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank you all for coming.

Once the last of their guests had gone, Mary collapsed on the sofa with a sigh.

He was eating as if every mouthful were his last.

They drank the last of the wine.

He came from last in a slowly run race.

She did love me to the last.

That was the last we saw of her.

It was the penultimate scene of the play.

In the word, appropriate, -pri- is the penultimate syllable.

It was the penultimate chapter of the book.

Just my luck, I was the penultimate person in that long, long line.

The Towers of Midnight is the penultimate book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Using the example under “Adjective”, -pri- is a penultimate, a.k.a., a penul.

The penultimate in any of the four suits is the three, providing the ace is considered a high card.

Their ultimate aim was to force his resignation.

His father’s approval was the ultimate accolade.

The ultimate constituents of anything that exists are atoms.

The Nikon F6 is “the ultimate serious full frame single lens reflex film camera” (Amateur Photographer).

“The value of the engineering stress at this peak is called the ultimate tensile strength, whereas the breaking strength is the rupture stress at point of failure” (PhanthomJay, Physics Forum).

We reached the ultimate point in our journey.

It may have been the ultimate style in hats, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in one!

We had no recourse, for he was the ultimate authority.

Tears are a woman’s ultimate weapon.

It seemed as if his ultimate goal in life was to get high.

“If an ultimate particle of water be proved to be two forces or more, it is not the less a particle of water…” (Chemical News and Journal of Industrial Science, Volume 28, 281).

Brian Medlin, in his Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism, states that he “believe[s] it is now pretty generally accepted by professional philosophers that ultimate ethical principles must be arbitrary”.

It was time to face the ultimate consequences.

When we learned the ultimate cost of the project, we knew it would never be approved.

Oh, wow! This has to be the ultimate vacation spot.

He is the ultimate in stupidity.

Accurate throwing is hugely important in Ultimate Frisbee.

Adjective: last-born, last-ditch, last-gasp, last-mentioned, last-named, lasting
Adverb: lastly
Noun: last, last-born, laster
Verb: last
Adjective: antepenultimate
Adverb: penultimately
Noun: penult
Adverb: ultimately
Noun: ultimacy
History of the Word:
1 From the Old English, before 900, latost meaning after all others in a series is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch laatst, lest and the German letzt, also to late.

Dictionary.com states it’s from the Old English lǣtan meaning to follow, literally, go in the tracks of, perform, continue. Lastit is from the Middle English lasten, cognate with the German laisten meaning to follow and the Gothic laistjan.

2 Old English lǣste is of Germanic origin, from a base meaning follow. It’s related to the Dutch leest and the German Leisten.

Late 17th century from the Latin paenultimus, which is from paene meaning almost + ultimus meaning last, on the pattern of ultimate. Mid-17th century from the late Latin ultimatus, past participle of ultimare meaning come to an end.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – and the budget alternative” by Anthony Lambert is courtesy of The Telegraph. “Queue of Dancing People” is by sheadquarters under the Pixabay License, via Pixabay.