Would you like a word worth defending? I'll tell you presently

Would you like a word worth defending? I'll tell you presently

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. 

You’ve been meaning to subscribe, haven’t you? Would you e-mail me presently at Margaret_H_Laing@Hotmail.com? If you do, I’ll add you to my select list of subscribers. I will not send spam, and you may unsubscribe at any time.

Filed under: Words Worth Defending


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  • Flabbier: doesn't bother me. I may be presently writing on this computer,. but in a minute I'll be searching for some software solution to get the last vestiges of Windows 10 off my computer.*

    On the mixed definitions, a little while is a little while, such as what I mentioned about the disk scrubber.

    But speaking of tense, what gets in my craw is the evening news version of "dies," such a "Jo Blaux dies at 86. He passed away this morning..." Unless Ron Magers is reporting at the very instant of death, Jo died, and as Chevy Chase put it, is still dead.

    *I spent about 18 hours doing that in the past couple of days. You really don't want to know the bloody details,whether presently or in a period of time. And isn't "a period of time" redundant?

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. I guess even I must admit that flabbier language can have its place... just not too near my own place. As for "a period of time," I don't think so -- a period may be the grammatical kind, and a time could be too small to count as a period. (A rate of speed, though, is redundant, because speed is a rate.)

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I'm thinking more that it is not a period of space, area or volume. The difference between a unit of time and of punctuation is usually apparent from the context.

    On the other hand, while speed is a rate, so is interest or a tax, or in fact, anything that is divisible by something else.

  • Santa arrives presently on Christmas morning.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    It took me about 20 minutes in the shower to figure that one out.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Or giftedly, perhaps?

  • jack, what's admirable about you is that you always come clean.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Ah yes, another clean discussion here in Serious country!

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I use Axe gel, but none of the women on the bottle cling to me.

  • I just read this in Edith Hamilton's "The Greek Way".

    "To the Egyptian the enduring world of reality was not the one he walked in along the paths of every-day life but the one he should presently go to by the way of death." page 17

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Especially if he dies, as I mentioned above.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Aha! Should presently go to, NOT is presently going to. Yay!

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