In eukaryotes, almost all RNA species are processed at their 3′ ends and most mRNAs are polyadenylated in the nucleus by canonical poly(A) polymerases. In recent years, several terminal nucleotidyl transferases (TENTs) including non-canonical poly(A) polymerases (ncPAPs) and terminal uridyl transferases (TUTases) have been discovered. In contrast to canonical polymerases, TENTs’ functions are more diverse; some, especially TUTases, induce RNA decay while others, such as cytoplasmic ncPAPs, activate translationally dormant deadenylated mRNAs. The mammalian genome encodes 11 different TENTs. This review summarizes the current knowledge about the functions and mechanisms of action of these enzymes.This article is part of the theme issue ‘5’ and 3′ modifications controlling RNA degradation’.