• 3-minute read
  • 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.

If you queue too long, petrification can set in.
If you queue for too long, petrification can set in.

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.

Tiddle that wink! [Image: Hannes Grobe]
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.

For example, the ultimate fate of all sausages.
For example, the ultimate fate of all sausages.

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.

Comments (5)
20th October 2019 at 11:25
sorry I can not get the difference between the two words yet
    21st October 2019 at 08:43
    Hi there. The words are similar, and they are sometimes interchangeable, but there is a slight difference in emphasis. The easiest thing to remember is that "ultimately" has a sense of finality. Is there an example of where you're looking to use one of these words?
Han Uong
14th February 2020 at 15:12
Thank you very much. It's very helpful
10th March 2020 at 23:27
So a bit like this, may be? Your response eventually helped me in understanding a bit more of the difference between the two. vs Your response ultimately helped me understand what the difference was between the two.
    11th March 2020 at 09:46
    Hi, Farooq. What are you looking to clarify? Both of those sentences are grammatical. The difference is that "eventually" implies that the response helped you understand after a period of time, while "ultimately" would also imply a sense of finality (i.e. that the response was the thing that finally helped you understand, or that the final result of the response was helping you to understand).

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