When you write something in present tense in English, the verb does all the work determining the time. You go, and when the trip’s over, you have gone.
So why, why do writers keep trying to “presently go” places or do other things “presently” when they are using present-tense verbs?
Presently is not even meant to be describing something in the present. It’s more like shortly… not in the present, but not in the distant future, either. It’s going to be present, well, shortly.
My home dictionary, Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, has three definitions for presently. The last one, which is listed as archaic, seems to me to be just like the first one, while the second works so much better:
“Presently (adv). 1. at present; at this time; now.
2. in a little while; soon; shortly.
3. at once, instantly (Archaic or Dial.)”
Here’s a good example of the value of reading of all of a dictionary’s definitions and their explanations. “At once” and “instantly” are archaic or dialect usage for presently — but “at present,” “at this time” and “now” (all of which could replace the archaic terms without changing meaning) are accepted. I’m skeptical.
After years of concern for watching not only meaning, but word counts, my concern for effective writing often boils down to whether a word’s presence or absence makes a sentence better. Here’s an example:
Trim: I am writing this at a computer.
Flabbier: I am presently writing this at a computer.
Effective: I am copying this from the first draft in my notebook.
Ineffective: I am presently copying this from the first draft in my notebook.
Please don’t mix definitions! I’ll do it — just this once, so you won’t have to, and so that we’ll all see how awful it looks:
I am presently writing this at one computer, but you will presently read this on another screen.
The second usage is still worth defending, but make sure to do it with plural verbs:
You will read this presently.
If you don’t feel comfortable with it yet, you’ll feel better presently.
If you’re sick and tired of the word, never fear — I’ll write something different presently!
For more fun with words, try the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.
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Filed under: Words Worth Defending