Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tragedies of English Language Use

#3 in a continuing series.

The word for today is penultimate.

I was reading a review of The Dark Knight today over at DVD Talk and the reviewer made an incorrect word choice that I encounter often in print and in conversation, and it inspired me to post about it. Not that anyone is actually reading this, but at least I can say I did my part.

I'll quote the passage from the review:

"Headlined by a penultimate performance from the late Heath Ledger..."

See, it's a common mistake because it seems like the 'pen' prefix is emphasizing the 'ultimate' (as if it made it even more ultimate than before) but, in reality, the word means 'next to last' so its use here is wrong. I guess, in this context, it could be argued that Heath Ledger's ultimate performance was his subsequent suicide, but I'm pretty confident that this was not the writer's intent.

Yeah, I'm being a little cheeky.

Anyway, I kind of expect to see it coming from the odd blogger, board poster, or possibly a high school student, but I find it a little embarrassing when professional writers make this mistake. And it happens often enough that it gets me a little wrankled.

Coming up next time on Tragedies of English Language Use, the double negative, irregardless.



Carly Murray said...

Actually, Mikey, I think that the usage of 'penultimate' means that Heath's performance in The Dark Knight WAS his next to last. His final film (and therefore, ultimate) is the post-production Terry Gilliam flick, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. However, I will trust your judgement when it comes to deciding if I'm 'splitting hares' or 'splitting hairs'. I've never been clear, linguistically, on the origin of that turn of phrase. :-)

Mike Jozic said...

I did think that the writer may be using the word in that regard, but I sort of ran with it based on the fact that he didn't mention Parnassus even in passing (meaning he may not have been aware of it), and the word is grossly misused so often that I took the leap of faith. Seeing as how I don't actually know the writer's intentions with his word use, it makes the point a moot one.