Are there any differences between "penultimate", "the last but one" and "second to last"?

From my point of view, they mean the same. However, I'm not a native-speaker, so I'm not sure.

Could you please tell me if there are situations where to better use one option instead of other.

  • In this matter, you are ahead of many native speakers who think penultimate means, I suppose, beyond ultimate, which is not only a misunderstanding of the word but on some level illogical. – choster Dec 6 '17 at 18:13

Penultimate is a very mannered way of saying second to last, and its use in English goes in and out of fashion. According to Google ngrams, it has been rarely used in American English since around 1840, and in British English it marks certain periods, as shown below.

Use of the word *penultimate* in English

Personally, I think of it as Victorian (1837-1901), and you can see a marked peak in 1865, but it seems to have lived on. It seems to be passing out of fashion again, although it's too early to tell.

It's a useful word if you're hoping to establish a pedantic tone, e.g. in an academic paper that needs additional weight and dryness. Otherwise not so much.

  • I agree with this. Also, 'penultimate' is useful in some academic and other contexts because there's no implied value judgement. 'Last but one' or 'second to last' might sound partial if the context concerns relative value of things or competition. – ArchContrarian Dec 6 '17 at 17:17
  • Thank you for your answers. Actually, my question was mostly about "the last but one" and "second to last". If we are talking about informal conversations, would it be correct to use them instead of "penultimate"? I'm asking because we had a dispute, and my opponent said that "penultimate" can be used in all cases, but "the last but one" only in specific ones. – Grigory Zhadko Dec 7 '17 at 15:13
  • I have only heard penultimate used in conversation once in my life, and that was with an English academic some years ago. Second to last is more common than the last but one, at least in the U.S. and Canada. I suppose you could use penultimate ironically to describe a “penultimate sacrifice” or “the penultimate in luxury accommodation”, but most people won’t get the joke. – Global Charm Dec 8 '17 at 16:17

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