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Real Vocabulary Quiz, Question 9: can “momentarily” mean “soon” or “in a moment”?

Real Vocabulary with Scott ThornburyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In this series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.

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In the ninth question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use the adverb momentarily in a sentence like this:

Please remain in the waiting room – the doctor will see you momentarily.

In other words, is it OK to use momentarily to mean “very soon, in just a moment”?
American speakers may wonder why we are even asking this question, since this use of momentarily is well established in American English. But for speakers of British English, there is only one meaning of the adverb: “for just a moment” or “very briefly”, as illustrated in examples like these:

I was momentarily startled, but then realised that it was meant to be positive.
With a shock that left me momentarily speechless, I discovered that I myself was listed.
Daniel frowned slightly, momentarily distracted.

For this meaning, words like stunned, distracted, confused, startled, and speechless are frequent collocates.

Among British speakers, there are two common misconceptions about American English. One is that meanings originating in the US will always, sooner or later, become current in British English too. This does happen a lot, of course, but for mysterious reasons some American usages never catch on in the UK. The useful word maven, for example (meaning a specialist or expert in some subject) has been in common use in the US for over 60 years, yet it is virtually unknown in the UK, and is almost never used by British speakers.

The other, more reprehensible, misconception is that American English is an “inferior” variety, and that good old British English is steadily being contaminated by an influx of “horrible Americanisms”. A few years ago, British journalist Matthew Engel pondered the question “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?” (by “people” he means “British people”!). He observed that the words lengthy, reliable, influential, and tremendous all originated in the US in the 19th or early 20th centuries, and were all denounced by Brits when they first encountered them. (In the first edition of the OED, the entry for reliable notes that it was “often protested against as an innovation or an Americanism”.) Yet this doesn’t stop Engel from having a go at some current examples of words which started life in the US. Referring to hospitalize, for example, he declares that it “really is a vile word”. This irrational prejudice is surprisingly widespread among British speakers. Engel’s article prompted a flood of emails, with (British) readers anxious to register their disapproval of perfectly unremarkable usages. A typical contribution goes:

Surely the most irritating is: “You do the Math.” Math? It’s MATHS.

No it isn’t! It’s maths in British English and math in American English: those are the norms that prevail in the two speech communities, and neither form is better or worse than the other.

Going back to that second, “American”, sense of momentarily (“very soon”), corpus data provides numerous examples:

We suggest you use these settings when taking pictures (we’ll explain these settings momentarily).
Just type in your question, and you will get an agent momentarily.
We should be arriving at our final  destination momentarily.

(In this use, the adverb shows a strong preference for occurring at the end of a sentence.)

However, this second meaning is far less frequent than the first, and not without controversy even in the US. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that

Many critics dislike this use, insisting that the adverb should only be used to mean “for a moment,” as in He hesitated momentarily before entering the room.

But 83% of its Usage Panel don’t object to the usage we’re discussing here.

And the answer to our original question is that momentarily has two meanings, and although the first is far more common than the second, both are equally acceptable. It is important to add, however, that the second meaning is not current throughout the English-speaking world. It is characteristic of American English and there is little evidence of it being used more widely. And just as we usually avoid mixing registers — for example, by using a colloquial word or phrase in a formal or technical context — it is advisable to do the same with varieties of English. So it would not be appropriate to use this meaning in a British English context.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

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About the author

Michael Rundell

1 Comment

  • I really like this full explanation from an expert on this field. I also find it cultural and useful. Please, keep on posting these interesting and attractive latest language use.
    Truthfully yours,
    Teacher former and National Translator
    Patricia del Vall

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