Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 53: How Soon is Now?

This week on Grammar Grater, our topic was inspired by this note from Lee in Moorhead, Minnesota:
"I keep hearing people using the word 'presently' when they ought to be using the word 'currently,' and it's driving me nuts. Would you please, please, please explain to your listeners the difference between the two? Thanks so much."
And thank you for the message, Lee. We did a lot of investigation on this one, and although the information may not be entirely what you were seeking, we hope it will help ease your mind.

First of all, the definition of the word currently isn't really a problem; the Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines it as an adverb meaning "at the present time."

What's really at stake here is the use of the word presently.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest sense of the word presently is as an adverb that means, "at the present time; at this time; at present; now."

Here's a citation of the word being used in this sense from William Caxton's 1485 translation of The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete:
"Thou arte not presently in helthe of thy body."
The OED goes on to explain that this sense of presently is "in regular use in most English dialects, and common in Scottish writers; revived in the U.S. and to some extent [the rest of] Britain in the 20th century."

The OED cites this example from an advertisement for an electronics company that appeared in the New York Times in 1978:
"[We are] presently engaged in the research, design, development and production of high energy Lithium Battery power sources..."
And here's another from the same year from the Dumfries Courier in Dumfries, Scotland:
"Mr. Savage was presently unemployed, his last employment being a year ago."
Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary also defines presently as an adverb meaning "in a little while, after a short time; soon; shortly." The OED says that this is "now the ordinary use" of the word.

It goes on to describe that this sense of presently traces its roots to the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, and it cites this example from William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, act IV, scene ii, when Mistress Page says:
"Nay, but he'll be here presently: let's go dress him like the witch of Brentford."

And here's a 20th century example from E.M. Forster:
Presently the waitress entered.
Given the word presently can mean both "soon" and "now," it might be easy to get it confused. Fowler's Modern English Usage acknowledges this risk of ambiguity, but asserts that "in practice the context normally makes it quite clear which sense is intended."

For example:
We are presently climbing to 30,000 feet on our way to our cruising altitude of 37,000 feet.
Presently in the sentence above means "now."
I can't get to that request right now, but I will do so presently.
Presently in this second instance means "soon." As Fowler's says, context is the key.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield.

Music from this Episode: "How Soon is Now?" by the Smiths; "Section 22: Running Away" by the Polyphonic Spree.

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