Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

When two words sound very similar, especially when they’re not used very often, it is incredibly easy to get their meanings confused. People will often say eminent when they really mean to say imminent (or vice versa). However, these two words are as different as regime and regimen, so they’re not exactly interchangeable.

An Eminent Scientist

When used in the context of describing a person, eminent means that the person is a well-known or respected authority within their particular professional area. This usually carries a positive connotation, implying that the person is famous for having done some important or influential work within their sphere of expertise.

For example, you could say that Jane Goodall is an eminent scientist when it comes to chimpanzees. You could also say that Warren Buffett is an eminent investor and philanthropist.

An Imminent Earthquake

By contrast, imminent has an entirely different definition. It can be used to describe an event or state of affairs that is ready to take place, particularly one that can occur at any moment. Imminent can usually be used interchangeably with impending.

The most common example, thanks to Hollywood movies, is to say that someone is in imminent danger. If the police are hunting down a fugitive and they have not only narrowed down his location, but have also developed a strong case against the fugitive, you could say that jail time is imminent for that crook. Similarly, thanks to the shifting of the tectonic plates, you could also say that a big earthquake is imminent for the Vancouver area.

Putting It All Together

Just as there is a monumental difference between ever so often and every so often, imminent and eminent are entirely different words too. Here’s an example that brings the big picture into focus.

Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, an eminent analyst of American politics, believes that the ousting of Barack Obama from the White House is imminent.

Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? Let me know through the comments below!