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TWTS: The not-so prominent differences between "eminent" and "preeminent"

An eminent person can also be a prominent person. That same person can also be preeminent in their field. 

A self-described “confused” listener recently asked us whether there’s a difference between an eminent scientist and a preeminent scientist. And where does "prominent" fit in?

As Professor Anne Curzan tells us, the distinctions here are few.

“Preeminent,” “eminent,” and “prominent” all go back to the same Latin verb stem for “stand out” which makes sense. When we think of “prominent,” we generally think of something protruding above the surface or something that’s readily apparent.

Since our listener specifically mentioned scientists, we’re going to look at these adjectives in terms of people, not things. “Prominent” can also mean “widely known,” like a prominent scientist.

“Eminent” means “well-known” or “respected.” Most dictionaries will also define “eminent” as “prominent,” in the sense of standing out or conspicuous.

In “preeminent,” the “pre” means “ahead” or “first.” A preeminent scientist surpasses others in their field or specialty. Basically, they’re at the front of the eminence line.

Despite these subtle distinctions, there are definitely people who see “eminent” and “preeminent” as very close to each other if not interchangeable. That raises the question, is the “pre” in preeminent” redundant?

“I would say it isn’t. It’s trying to create a fine-grained distinction between ‘eminent’ and ‘preeminent,” says Professor Curzan.

There are other places where people have been concerned that the “pre” is redundant, including “prepay” and “preplan.” Do you find these words redundant, or can you think of instances when using “pre” with “pay” or “plan” makes sense?

To hear our thoughts, listen to the audio above.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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