A few weeks ago, Malam Mohammed Haruna, eminent journalist, syndicated newspaper columnist and former presidential spokesman, wrote to call my attention to a usage disagreement he had with his friend, Professor Femi Osofisan, over the word "penultimate." He wanted to know what my thoughts were on the issue.
Professor Osifisan sent him the following text: "Pls Mohammed, check the real meaning & use of 'penultimate'. Rather unsettling for a columnist of yr stature to keep falling into the common Nigerian error! Merry XMAS!"
Malam Mohammed's alleged errors occurred in the following sentences:
1. "Penultimate Monday, i.e. December 17, General Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and perennial presidential contender since 2003, turned 70."
2. "Penultimate Monday, a (presumably) regular reader of this column sent me ansms from 08025720606, in apparent anticipation of today's piece."
3. "The reader was, of course, referring to penultimate Sunday's massacre of Christian worshipers on the old campus of Bayero University, Kano (BUK).
In my hurried, preliminary response to Malam Mohammed, I wrote the following: "Your use of 'penultimate' in the sentences you quoted above is perfectly legitimate. I am mystified by Professor Osofisan's charge that your usage falls 'into the common Nigerian error!'
"Penultimate is just a grander, less familiar term for 'second to (the) last,' or 'last but one.' Contrary to Osofisan's claim, it is in fact native English speakers, not Nigerian English speakers, who tend to misuse 'penultimate.' Grammar enthusiasts here always rail against the tendency in native-speaker English, especially of the American variety, to use 'penultimate' as if it meant 'greater than the ultimate,' which is senseless because 'ultimate,' like 'unique,' 'absolute,' etc. are already superlative adjectives.
"The only sense I can make of Osofisan's criticism is that he is probably cautioning against the use of 'penultimate' in contexts where the endpoint isn't apparent. If the endpoint isn't clear, it would be hard to isolate the second or next to it. He would probably prefer an expression like 'the penultimate Monday in December' since 'December' helps us easily locate the Mondays being referenced. But that argument neither makes grammatical nor logical sense since the newspapers in which your columns appeared have [dates] that help the reader determine the days of the week you referred to.
"At any rate, many prestigious English-language newspapers habitually use 'penultimate' exactly the way you used it."
I then gave examples from the Economist, the New York Times, and other prestigious English-language publications. This week, I want to expand on what I wrote above and clarify a few points for the benefit of my readers. For instance, after a deeper look, I've realized that the examples I cited from the Economist, the New York Times, BBC and Reuters are different from Malam Mohammed Haruna's. But I still insist that his use of "penultimate" isn't grammatically wrong.
Use of "penultimate" in Nigerian English
Professor Osofisan's concern about how Mohammed Haruna (and many Nigerian journalists) used "penultimate" in the sentences quoted above is legitimate. But to call it an "error" is a stretch. And here is why.
Penultimate came to English by way of Latin in the 17th century. It is derived from "paene," which is Latin for "almost" and "ultimus," the Latin word for "last." So "ultimate" literally means "almost last."
The word has been used since 1677 to indicate the second to the last in a series. For instance, we can talk of the "penultimate episode of a soap opera," "the penultimate month of the year," which is November, the "penultimate day of December," which is December 30, etc. Basically, you can use "penultimate" anywhere you can use the expressions "second to the last," "next to the last," or "last but one."
An idiosyncratic Nigerian usage of "penultimate" (which Professor Osofisan has called a "common Nigerian error") is to use the word where there is no serialized set of programs or events or days. For instance, when Mohammed Haruna wrote about "penultimate Sunday's massacre of Christian worshipers," he could be misunderstood to mean that there was a series of Sundays that ended at some point and that from this series of Sundays we could identify the last and the second to the last.
Although there is no usage guide I know of that forbids the use of "penultimate" outside a finite sequence of events or days, it helps the cause of clarity to use it in a series. Nevertheless, to use "penultimate" outside a series isn't a grammatical error. It isn't even an error of logic. It is, instead, a literal use of the word.
After all, when people, for instance, write something like "last week's murder of innocents" we don't demand that they place the "last" in a finite sequence of weeks. We often determine what "last week" is from the present week. We create a notional sequence that ends at the present. We should also be able to determine the second to the last (or the "penultimate") week or day from the present week or day.
In the examples cited above, Mohammed Haruna actually helped the reader determine the "penultimate" days he mentioned by indicating the dates in parenthesis. That, for me, addresses the concerns for clarity that inspired the criticism of the use of the word.
Having said that, I should mention that when I searched the British National Corpus, the Corpus of Historical American English, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I couldn't locate expressions like "penultimate Monday's...," "penultimate Sunday's...," etc.
My own advice (and habitual practice) is to use dates in an attributive sense when referring back to an event that happened in the past, such as "the March 30, 2012 murder of innocents in..."
However, as I said earlier, many native English speakers misuse "penultimate" in ways Nigerian English speakers don't.
Native English Speakers' Misuse of "Penultimate"
Perhaps because "penultimate" is less commonly used in native-speaker conversational English than it is in Nigerian informal English, its meaning tends to be either entirely unknown or misrecognized. As I indicated earlier, a popular misunderstanding of "penultimate" in native-speaker varieties of English is to think that it means the absolute best, the ultimate of the ultimate.
For a recent notable misuse of "penultimate" in the Huffington Post, one of America's most prominent news sites, see the following sentence: "Mr. Spielberg curiously seemed determined to find an actor from across the pond to play this penultimate American president."
In response to this misuse of "penultimate," a grammar aficionado wrote: "I wonder if anyone has told the twenty-six other gentlemen who have lived in the White House since 1869 that they don't count."
A fiction writer by the name of Daniel Handler also recently narrated how he was bewildered when a literary critic described one of his works as"the penultimate novel from the penultimate novelist."I found few such misusages in the British National Corpus.
Now, that's a real usage error, not the Nigerian English tendency to use "penultimate" outside finite sequences.