Lesson #184: Describing A Process and An End Result: How to Correctly Use ‘Eventually’, ‘Finally’, ‘Gradually’, and ‘Ultimately’

Many students have struggled with understanding the differences between two essential adverbs: gradually and eventually. So in this Lesson I will try to define each with plenty of examples and synonyms where possible.

I mentioned in yesterday’s Lesson (on Cecilia, by Frances Burney) that this week we would be looking at some novels that either were influenced by or referred to Burney’s early classic, Cecilia. So in keeping with this, our literary text today is William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848). One of Thackeray’s main characters writes to her friend Amelia Sedley, reminding her how they ‘used to read Cecilia at Chiswick’ when they were together.

Add to this the fact that it is full of excellent examples of what I hope to teach you today!

📝 DEFINING ‘GRADUALLY’ AND ‘EVENTUALLY’/’FINALLY’/’ULTIMATELY’

You may have thought that ‘gradually’ and ‘eventually’ were synonyms. No, they are not. While they have some overlapping characteristics, they refer to two very different aspects of progress.

✏️ ‘Gradually’ simply means ‘step by step’, and sometimes ‘slowly’. Its antonym is ‘suddenly’.

It describes a process.

✏️ On the other hand, ‘eventually’ means ‘in the end’, ‘ultimately’, ‘finally even if the process is long’. It is a future projection, looking for an expected result. One possible antonym could be ‘never’.

It emphasises an end result.

Some common synonyms of it are ‘ultimately‘ and ‘finally‘, which we will be considering further in this Lesson.

SOME EXAMPLES IN THE CONTEXT OF ‘VANITY FAIR’

📝 GRADUALLY

📙 ‘And Amelia was entirely of this opinion, to which, gradually, the good-natured Mrs. Sedley was brought.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

In other words, over time Mrs Sedley was brought to the same opinion as Amelia.

📙 ‘She imparted these stories gradually to Miss Crawley …’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Put differently: she imparted (gave) these stories bit by bit, little by little to Miss Crawley.

📙 ‘… he could gently and gradually bring the Misses Osborne to a knowledge of their brother’s secret.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Expressed differently: he could gently and little by little, step by step tell the Misses Osborne about their brother’s secret.

📙 ‘This last rumour gradually got strength.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

You could say of this quotation: this last rumour got strength over time. Again, the emphasis here is on the slow but steady progress of the rumour.

📙 ‘There was a show of courtesy kept up between the Rectory and the Hall ladies, between the younger ones at least, for Mrs. Bute and Lady Southdown never could meet without battles, and gradually ceased seeing each other.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

In other words, Mrs Bute and Lady Southdown stopped seeing each other over time, in the long run.

..

📝 EVENTUALLY, FINALLY, ULTIMATELY

While Thackeray as a writer did not like to use the adverb ‘eventually‘, yet he relied heavily on ‘finally‘ and also to an extent of ‘ultimately‘ to describe the end result of a long process.

Why would he have done this? 🤔

We might say that it is entirely down to a matter of taste. Thackeray, like many writers in every language, had a set of words that he liked to use more than others, like ‘finally’.

However, there are some synonyms that can be substituted for exactly the same word, and in this part of the Lesson you will have the chance to imagine what it will be like to substitute ‘eventually’ in place of Thackeray’s uses of ‘finally’ or ‘ultimately’. (💡 Hint: it will have the same meaning, more or less!)

📙 ‘He preferred his nurse’s caresses to his mamma’s, and when finally he quitted that jolly nurse and almost parent, he cried loudly for hours.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

This is an excellent example of ‘finally’ meaning ‘the end of a process’. As we all know, a child grows up; finally he or she doesn’t need to be always looked after by a nurse. This quoted passage describes the end of that process of caring in this little boy’s life.

Tip: Sometimes ‘finally’ can have a very final feeling to it – that is, it can sound like the fixed ending of something, such as a life. But we know from the context how ‘final’ the adverb ‘finally’ will be. For example, in the passage above, we know that the little boy didn’t die after he left his nurse – instead he cried for hours. So this is an example of when ‘finally’ simply describes the end of a situation that had been ongoing for some time.

📙 ‘Between them the two families got a great portion of her private savings out of her, and finally she fled to London followed by the anathemas of both, and determined to seek for servitude again as infinitely less onerous than liberty.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

We could rephrase this as follows: ‘and in the end she fled to London …’ or ‘and at last she fled to London’. This is a good example of where ‘eventually’ would sound well – ‘and eventually she fled to London …’

📙 ‘Finally, a great merchant bought the house and land adjoining, in which, and with the help of other wealthy endowments of land and money, he established a famous foundation hospital for old men and children.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

This is a good example of how we can use ‘finally’, ‘eventually’, ‘ultimately’, or even ‘gradually’ at the start of a sentence (remember, it is followed by a comma).

📙 “I don’t mean to say that I won’t assist you ultimately.”

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

And this is a good example of the same adverb type at the end of a sentence (notice how no comma is needed).

📙 ‘When pressed upon the point, Dobbin, who could not tell lies, blushed and stammered a good deal and finally confessed.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Whenever you see ‘finally’, always think of it as meaning ‘in the end’, or ‘at last’.

📙 ‘In that instant she put a rouge-pot, a brandy bottle, and a plate of broken meat into the bed, gave one smooth to her hair, and finally let in her visitor.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

📙 ‘They invited examination, they declared that she was the object of an infamous conspiracy, which had been pursuing her all through life, and triumphed finally.’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

By placing ‘finally’ at the end of this sentence and next to ‘triumphed’, we understand that the phrase ‘triumphed finally’ means that ‘in the end the infamous conspiracy triumphed over this woman in the end.’ That triumph was the end result.

📙 ‘She showed how her marriage with Rawdon Crawley had always been viewed by the family with feelings of the utmost hostility … how, finally, and by the most flagrant outrage, she had been driven into demanding a separation from her husband …’

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

👉 This is probably my favourite quotation here, because it allows us to really consider the differences between ‘gradually’ and ‘finally’ or ‘eventually’.

Here the word ‘finally’ comes at the end of a long description (which I have mostly left out, because of its obscure vocabulary). Mrs Crawley has suffered again and again at the hands of her cruel husband, and in the end she cannot take it anymore and she is driven into asking for a separation from her husband.

So you can see how everything was building up, accumulating, gradually getting worse and worse until one day she finally asked for a separation.

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)