The Grammarphobia Blog

Does “presently” mean “now” or “soon”?

Q: When I was in school, I was taught that “presently” meant “soon,” but the word is being used all the time these days to mean “now.” Was I taught wrong or has the meaning of the word changed?

A: One of the original meanings of “presently” was “now” or “at present,” but by sometime in the 17th century that meaning had fallen by the wayside and become obsolete. For the last few hundred years, the preferred meaning of “presently” has been “soon” or “before long,” as in “I’ll be along presently.”

However, the old meaning (“now”) never completely disappeared and has become more common lately, particularly in American English. “Presently” is often used interchangeably with “currently.” Still, most style guides recommend against that usage, particulary if there’s a danger of ambiguity.

In my opinion, using “presently” to mean “now” is unnecessary (“now” is a perfectly good word). And using “presently” in the accepted sense of “soon” sounds stiff and pretentious. (“Soon” is another perfectly good word.) Since there’s an ambiguity to the word anyway, I tend not to use it at all.

Clearly, the once-obsolete meaning (“now”) has been revived. Since real, honest-to-goodness usage is what determines “correctness,” there’s no point in arguing against the trend. But in many cases, the word “presently” can simply be deleted (example: “I am presently living in Altoona” vs. “I am living in Altoona”). If an ambiguous or a disputed word can be deleted without bloodshed, why not drop it?