16th August 2016
Word Choice: Eventually vs. Ultimately
“Eventually” and “ultimately” have plenty in common. Both are ten letters long. Both have “-ly” at the end. And, crucially, both refer to something that happens (or is expected to happen) after a certain period of time.
It’s this final overlap which causes most confusion, with some people using “eventually” and “ultimately” interchangeably. However, there is an important difference, so you won’t want to mix up these words in your written work.
Eventually (Some Time Later)
We’ll begin with “eventually,” which generally means “some time later” or “finally,” especially after a prolonged delay:
The queue was long, but we reached the front eventually.
It can also be used more generally to indicate an unspecified amount of time, even where no specific delay occurs:
I’m new to ballet, but I’m hoping to eventually turn professional!
In both cases, “eventually” emphasizes the passage of time, either in relation to something that has happened or that is expected to happen.
Ultimately (In the End)
“Ultimately” can mean “finally” or “in the end,” too, but specifically refers to the finishing point in a process or series of events:
Although it seemed benign to begin with, the virus ultimately spread to other countries.
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A second meaning of “ultimately” is to indicate something as a fundamental or basic fact:
Ultimately, tiddlywinks is a game of thrills and spills.
Even in this second use of “ultimately,” there is a strong sense of finality, as it suggests something is beyond dispute or conclusive.
Eventually or Ultimately?
When used to mean “finally,” there are situations in which “eventually” and “ultimately” can be used interchangeably. However, even then, each word emphasizes something different.
If we say something happened “eventually,” it’s usually the passage of time we are stressing. Hence “eventually” is normally used when describing something that happens after a delay.
If we say something happened “ultimately,” on the other hand, the emphasis is on finality, so this term is best saved for referring to something that happens at the end of a process.
When “ultimately” is used to mean “fundamentally,” moreover, it’s even more important to use the correct term, since “eventually” wouldn’t make sense in this context.
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