Author Topic: Is "presently" present or future?  (Read 12066 times)

Joe Carillo

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Is "presently" present or future?
« on: September 25, 2009, 07:12:48 PM »
Let’s settle this vexing word-choice problem once and for all: Do we use the adverb “presently” to mean “at present” or “very soon”? I realize that I had already taken a position on this matter years before in this column—that the word should mean “very soon” and not “at present”—and I must admit that when I’m copyediting manuscripts, I always itch to change “presently” to “now” when the author had obviously used the word in that sense, as in “The couple presently lives in a charming little apartment.” But then, when I watch a British movie with snotty butler telling snotty master “I’ll be with you presently, sir,” I’m absolutely sure that the word means “very soon” instead.

 

The truth of the matter is that “presently” has two acceptable senses in current usage: “currently” or “at the present time,” and “very soon” or “in a short time.” The neologisms “antagonym” and “contranym” have been coined for words like this, which could sometimes mean the opposite of itself. At any rate, The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that “at the present time” or “currently” was actually the original sense of “presently,” one that dates back to the late 14th century. For some reason, though, the usage seems to have disappeared from the written record in the 17th century. This disappearance, my digital Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary implies, was probably what prompted the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary to declare in 1909 that that sense of the word had become obsolete—even as the OED observed that the sense remained in regular use in most English dialects.

Since then, some language critics have become biased against the “now” sense of “presently,” declaring it erroneous usage. They insist that “presently” should be used only in its primary sense of “soon” or “in a short time.” In fact, according to The American Heritage Book of English Usage, only 50 percent of its Usage Panel found the “now” sense of “presently” acceptable. (In one recent official count, the Usage Panel had 180 members, including such notables as Jacques Barzun, educator; Alfred Kazin, English professor; Henry Louis Gates Jr., humanities professor; Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Pat Conroy, novelists; Paul Theroux, travel writer; and William Zinsser, writer-editor.) This, of course, puts sentences like “The 29th Olympics is presently being held in Beijing” in serious jeopardy. Indeed, it’s obvious that if the Usage Panel had their way, they’d rather restate that sentence as “The 29th Olympics is [now, at present, currently] being held in Beijing.”

I must admit that it was the collective judgment of all these English-language notables that had persuaded me to take a firm position in this impasse. I’m not saying that the “now” sense of that word is incorrect, but being not a native English speaker and not bound by a particular English dialect, I’d rather rely on how professional users of American English perceive the meaning of a word than on simple dictionary meaning or anecdotal evidence.

Thus, to avoid confusing myself and my readers, I would never use “presently” in this sense: “They are presently in Boracay Beach on their honeymoon.” Hands down, I would use “now” as first option, and perhaps use “at present” only if I have already used a lot of “nows” in preceding sentences. As to “currently,” I’d shy away from it because the word sounds to me too officious for comfort. These, too, would be my advice to writers who until now are unsure of how to deal with “presently.”


One more question needs to be answered, of course: When do we use “presently” to mean “very soon,” if at all? Well, perhaps when we’re in London to visit the Queen, and the cab driver is badgering us to hurry up while we’re buying some souvenirs, we can tell him with absolute nonchalance: “Just you wait. I’ll be with you presently.”

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, Saturday, August 16, 2008 issue © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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« Last Edit: January 15, 2017, 11:02:26 AM by Joe Carillo »

maxsims

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Re: Is “presently” present or future?
« Reply #1 on: September 25, 2009, 08:19:31 PM »
"...Since then, some language critics have become partial against the “now” sense of “presently,” ..."

Partial against....?
« Last Edit: September 30, 2009, 10:43:10 PM by Joe Carillo »

Joe Carillo

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Re: Is “presently” present or future?
« Reply #2 on: September 25, 2009, 08:51:06 PM »
"...Since then, some language critics have became partial against the “now” sense of “presently,” ..."

Partial against....?

My usage of "partial" to mean "biased" is actually defensible based on definition #2 of my digital Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary, which I quote:

"2 : inclined to favor one party more than the other  : BIASED"

However, I can see the likelihood of the usage not being viewed favorably by a lot of people or that it might even confuse them. I will therefore replace it posthaste with "biased" right after this.

Thanks for pointing out the questionable usage!

tonybau

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Re: Is “presently” present or future?
« Reply #3 on: September 30, 2009, 10:15:18 PM »
"...Since then, some language critics have became partial against the “now” sense of “presently,” ..."

"...Since then, some language critics have become partial against the “now” sense of “presently,” ..."

I believe the edited version is the correct one.

Your thoughts?

tonybau

Joe Carillo

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Re: Is “presently” present or future?
« Reply #4 on: September 30, 2009, 10:42:13 PM »
You're right! It should be "have become" instead of "have became." I'll make the correction in all the postings. Thanks for pointing out the proofreading error!