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Ambiguity is presently unlikely

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Written by Stan Carey

The adverb presently has a few related meanings, which has led critics to call it ambiguous and to warn against using it a certain way. But I don’t think that’s necessary. As usual, context is your friend. Let’s take a closer look.

Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for presently has two definitions. Sense 1 is ‘at the present time’, synonymous with now, currently; for example: ‘Presently, Rachel is heading our research group’. Sense 2 is ‘soon’; for example: ‘He’ll be with you presently’. Notice the different verb tenses in the example sentences – they are key to resolving the word’s supposed ambiguity.



When presently entered English in the 14th century, it meant ‘immediately’. We find this in Shakespeare, for example in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘My lord desires you presently’. It led to the sense ‘soon, in a little while’, which is sense 2 in Macmillan Dictionary.

Sense 1 of presently has been in use since Chaucer. But prescriptivists advise caution. Bill Walsh, in Lapsing into a Comma, recommends avoiding it as a synonym for currently. So does R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap. Harry Shaw, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, calls the usage ‘inaccurate’, while Garner’s Modern English Usage finds it ‘poor’ because it causes ambiguity.

To demonstrate, Garner offers quotations, such as ‘Carol presently has a one-elephant show’; ‘the waiting list for such a kidney is presently 35,000 patients long’. He would prefer now instead of presently. But neither line is remotely ambiguous. Because of the verb tenses, presently = ‘currently’ is the natural and sensible interpretation in both cases. Readers will not wonder if it means ‘soon, in a short time’.

Garner writes that presently meant ‘immediately’ in Shakespeare’s day (as we’ve seen) and then gained the sense ‘in a little while’. But the latter was also used by Shakespeare, as in this line from Henry IV, Part I: ‘be near at hand, / For we shall presently have need of you’. Or The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘Nay, but he’ll be here presently’. It’s safe to assume that playgoers were not confused by the polysemy.

If I tell you that something is happening presently, you’ll naturally infer that it’s happening now. If I tell you it will happen presently, you’ll infer that it will happen in the near future. The verb tense and the broader context tend to establish what is meant. In rare cases where they don’t, and where that could cause confusion, then the speaker will realize this and clarify, or the listener will enquire.

Critics overstate the likelihood of ambiguity. The fact is, context nearly always makes it clear what presently means. It’s good to be aware of the word’s different senses, but you needn’t worry about it presently.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

4 Comments

  • This reminds me of an incident in Laurie Lee’s lovely memoir of a Gloucestershire childhood, Cider with Rosie. When young Laurie starts school the teacher tells him to ‘sit here for the present’. So he sits there dutifully, waiting for a present that never materialises.

  • You’re obviously right (as usual) about the context removing ambiguity but as a native British speaker who learnt English in the 1930s, I cannot recall ever using ‘presently’ to mean ‘currently’. I have a sense of it being something an Americanism. It is also used by an Irish friend. The OED bears this out:
    “Apparently avoided in literary use between the 17th and 20th centuries, but in regular use in most English dialects and by Scottish writers; revived in the 20th cent. in the U.S., subsequently in Britain and elsewhere. Regarded by some usage writers, esp. after the mid 20th cent., as erroneous or ambiguous.”

  • Yes, Beverley: the use of presently to mean ‘at present’ rose and fell in favour in different domains over the centuries. But as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage notes, it has been ‘in more or less continuous standard use since 1485’. Though it may be proportionately more popular in US English, it did not escape criticism there; however, the American Heritage Dictionary notes that resistance to the usage ‘appears to be waning’.

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