The Grammarphobia Blog

A moment of truth

Q: I’ve always been annoyed by a sentence like this one: “The plane will land momentarily.” It’s my understanding that passengers wouldn’t have time to disembark if the plane landed only momentarily. Am I right?

Q: The adverb “momentarily,” meaning for a moment, goes back to the mid-1600s. But a newer usage, meaning in a moment, dates from the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, this second meaning creates problems when a statement might be taken two ways.

A sentence like “The plane will land momentarily” could mean either for a moment or in a moment. That’s why many usage authorities have argued against the newer meaning.

The “momentarily” entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English (4th ed.), for example, notes that the newer meaning is unacceptable to 59 percent of the dictionary’s Usage Panel.

Nevertheless, the upstart usage has become so widespread, especially in the United States, that it’s probably here to stay. You’ll certainly be hearing it for a long time, not just momentarily.

Update (Aug. 11, 2012): Since this post was written, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has appeared in a new fifth edition, and its  usage note for “momentarily” has changed. The editors now say that while the Usage Panel still “shows some dissatisfaction” with the use of the word to mean “in a moment,” the panel’s “resistance is waning.” Sixty-eight percent of the panelists now accept the nontraditional usage.  And 58 percent approve of a vaguer sense of the word, meaning “for the time being,” as in “The file server is momentarily out of order.”

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