Q: I read your write-up on the negative sense of “precipitous” with interest, since I’ve been wondering if “impending” has a similar negative meaning. My feeling is that “impending,” unlike “precipitous,” is not necessarily negative.
A: “Impending” isn’t quite as negative as “precipitous,” but it’s often used negatively, as in “impending doom.” Two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “impending” is usually negative, and the other eight usually illustrate the use of the adjective with negative examples.
Both Longman and Macmillan say “impending” describes “an event or situation, especially an unpleasant one,” that will happen soon. A third dictionary, Lexico, says it describes a forthcoming “event regarded as threatening or significant.”
Merriam-Webster, whose entry is typical of others, defines it neutrally as “occurring or likely to occur soon,” but of these five examples, three are negative: “impending trials” … “impending motherhood” … “impending earthquakes and volcanic eruptions” … “impending disaster” … “impending sales.”
The negative sense of “impending,” like that of “precipitous,” comes from its etymological roots. The adjective is derived from the verb “impend,” which English borrowed from impendere, classical Latin for (among other things) to hang over or threaten.
Although the English verb is sometimes used literally to mean “hang over,” it was first used figuratively to mean “hang threateningly or hover (over) as about to fall,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand here, uses the present participle form of the verb:
“You are found foul and guilty by a jury / Made of your fathers’ curses, which have brought / Vengeance impending on you.” From The Old Law, or A New Way to Please, a play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, with a possible contribution by Philip Massinger. It was first published in 1656, but is believed to have been written several decades earlier.
Later in the 17th century, the verb took on a wider sense that the OED defines as “to be about to happen; to be imminent or near at hand.” However, the happenings in most of the dictionary’s examples are negative, including the first, which uses the present participle:
“Giving them notice of any accident or distemper impending” (from A New Voyage Into the Northern Countries, a 1674 translation of a French travel book by Pierre Martin de La Martinière).
And here’s an expanded OED citation from The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope: “I saw, alas! some dread Event impend, / Ere to the main this morning sun descend.”
The dictionary’s only positive example for the verb, which we’ve also expanded, is from The Pleasures of Imagination (1744), a three-book poem by the English writer and physician Mark Akenside: “Now the same glad task / Impends; now urging our ambitious toil.”
The adjective “impending” (technically, a participial adjective) showed up in the late 17th century. The earliest OED example, expanded here, is from a report by the Lord Privy Seal to King Charles II on the state of his government and kingdom:
“as the only Remedy for growing Evils, and to prevent Impending Mischiefs, another Parliament was called and sat for the same Year.” From The Account of Arthur, Earl of Anglesey, Lord Privy Seal, to Your Most Excellent Majesty, of the True State of Your Majesty’s Government and Kingdoms. The report, written in 1682, was published in 1694.
The adjective has usually appeared in negative phrases since then, especially up until the 20th century. We found this positive example in The Pastor’s Wife, a 1914 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim: “Robert went away after an early breakfast to his fields to see the improvement forty-eight hours’ soaking must have made, and obviously did not mind her impending departure in the least.”
Bryan A. Garner, writing in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “it is not uncommon for writers to use impending for pending, perhaps because they think the extra syllable adds gravitas. Whatever the reason, the slipshod extension threatens to deprive us of a useful word, as impending loses its connotations of danger or evil.”
Although it’s legitimate to use “impending” in positive or neutral phrases (as in “impending marriage” or “impending holiday” or “impending bonus”), searches of newspaper and book databases indicate that the negative sense of “impending” is still the dominant one.