The Grammarphobia Blog

Immediately, if not sooner

Q: On radio and TV, I have lately been hearing the word “immediately” pronounced with the first syllable emphasized. Is this incorrect or am I just being a nitpicker?

A: You may be a nitpicker, but you’re right about the pronunciation of “immediately.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and the eight standard dictionaries we’ve checked all agree that the second syllable of “immediately” is the one that’s emphasized.

However, lexicographers at these dictionaries recognize a few variations in pronouncing the word.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists i-MEE-dee-ut-lee as the usual pronunciation.

However, M-W says Americans sometimes pronounce it i-MEE-dit-lee and Britons often say i-MEE-jit-lee. All three are standard.

The word can be an adverb (“It happened immediately” or “He was sitting immediately behind her”) as well as a conjunction (“Let us know immediately he arrives”). However, its use as a conjunction, meaning “as soon as,” is chiefly British.

The earliest citation in the OED for “immediately” is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1412-20), a Middle English poem about the rise and fall of the city: “Fro Troye were sente lettres …To pallamides inmediatly directe.”

Although English borrowed “immediately” from Latin, it ultimately comes from an Indo-European source that gave English the words “medium,” “mediocre,” and “mediate,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Etymologically, Ayto says, the word “immediate” (and, of course “immediately”) refers to “acting directly, without any mediation.”

In case you’re interested, the expression “immediately, if not sooner” showed up in the 19th century. Here’s an early example from an 1833 issue of Fraser’s Magazine, a literary journal in London:

“He was determined to fight; right or wrong, fight he must, and fight he would—immediately, if not sooner.”

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