Imminent vs. Eminent: What’s the Difference?

Is your respected town councilwoman an imminent member of the community, or an eminent one? Here's the difference between these two words, and which is which.

It can be hard enough to keep track of homophones: words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean different things. Words like “which” and “witch,” or, more infamously, “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” But then there are other pairs of words that don’t sound quite the same but do sound pretty darn similar, and that are also challenging to keep straight in your mind.

One of these perplexing pairs is “imminent” and “eminent.” They sound exactly the same except for that first vowel, and one is spelled with one more “M” than the other. But their meanings are pretty different. This distinction is particularly perplexing because, unlike the “there” trio, they’re not words we use super frequently. When you say one out loud, how certain are you that you’re using the right one? What’s the difference between “imminent” vs. “eminent”?

What does “imminent” mean?

“Imminent” is an adjective meaning “likely to occur at any moment.” Most often, it refers to bad or unpleasant things, as in, “The storm’s arrival is imminent” or “They found themselves in imminent danger.” “Eminent danger,” therefore, is incorrect. But despite this common use of “imminent,” things that are imminent don’t have to be negative or dangerous. For instance, if your friend is visiting you for the weekend, you could say that his arrival is imminent and it would still be correct. Find out some words that don’t mean what you think they do.

What does “eminent” mean?

“Eminent” is also an adjective. But this one means “high in rank” or “distinguished.” “Eminent” most often refers to a person, though it can also refer to things like laws or even places. For instance, the United Nations headquarters could be considered an eminent place. “Eminent” is a much more positive word, generally, than “imminent”!

However, there is a more negative term associated with “eminent”: Perhaps you’ve heard of “eminent domain”; though it’s not a super common term (and, in fact, could be classified as legalese), it’s still worth mentioning when explaining “imminent” vs. “eminent.” “Eminent domain” (not “imminent domain”!) is a law term, referring to the ability of public authorities to turn private property into a public space.

What about “immanent”?

Oh, yes, there’s a third confusing spelling. In addition to “imminent” vs. “eminent,” there is also “immanent,” with two M’s and an A. This word is even less common, but so frustratingly similar to “imminent” that it’s still worth mentioning. Also an adjective, it means that something is inherently part of something. Its most common uses are in spiritual and religious contexts. For instance, C. K. Mahoney’s 1922 book The Philosophy of Prayer says: of Prayer: “I hear them speak of an immanent God; of a God who fills all nature.” But you could also say something like “Sleep deprivation is immanent in raising young kids.” It’s good to know that “immanent” is a separate word, but the general confusion is between “imminent” vs. “eminent.” Next, find out more words and phrases you’re probably getting wrong.

Popular Videos

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.