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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.

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  • 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
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 18:13

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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.

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  • 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. Commented Dec 6, 2017 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. Commented Dec 7, 2017 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.
    – user205876
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:17
  • Google Ngram Viewer shows that penultimate is 10 times more common than "the last but one" and "second to last". Is it wrong? books.google.com/ngrams/… Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 7:19
  • Ngrams is probably not wrong in its counting, but it counts the wrong things. The frequency of a word or phrase in the Google corpus is not the frequency of its use in modern writing. Depending on the kind of work you do, you could try searching for “penultimate” and “second to last” in your e-mail. I got several hits for “second to last”, but the only hit for “penultimate” was in a mid-century economics paper that one of my colleagues had sent me.
    – user205876
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:14

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