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Meantime, back at the ranch

Q: Since when has “meantime” become acceptable by itself? I’ve heard several news commentators begin sentences with “Meantime” instead of “In the meantime” or “Meanwhile.” I’ve also seen “meantime” instead of “meanwhile” on news tickers. I was taught in high school that this is incorrect. What happened?

A: The words “meantime” and “meanwhile” have identical meanings and can be used interchangeably, but most of the time we use them for different purposes.

Both are nouns as well as adverbs. When used as adverbs they appear alone, but when used as nouns they’re part of an adverbial phrase beginning “in the …” or “for the ….”

So all of these sentences are correct:

(1) “In the meantime, Herbie did his laundry.” (Here, “meantime” is a noun.)

(2) “In the meanwhile, Herbie did his laundry.” (Here, “meanwhile” is a noun.)

(3) “Meantime, Herbie did his laundry.” (“Meantime” is an adverb here.)

(4) “Meanwhile, Herbie did his laundry.” (“Meanwhile” is an adverb here.)

However, most people use #1 and #4 much more often than #2 and #3. For most of us, the preference is to use the noun “meantime” in the adverbial phrase (#1) and to use “meanwhile” when we want a stand-alone adverb (#4).

While those are the customary idiomatic usages, it’s not incorrect to go the other way—to use “meantime” all by itself and “meanwhile” as part of a phrase (“in the meanwhile,” “for the meanwhile”).

We’re not alone in saying this, by the way. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage comments: “The evidence shows that meantime and meanwhile have been used interchangeably as nouns since the 14th century and as adverbs since the 16th century.” (And that, we might add, is as long as they’ve been in the language.)

“The general observation that meantime is now the more common noun and meanwhile the more common adverb is undoubtedly true,” M-W continues, “but the adverb meantime and the noun meanwhile have been in continuous use for hundreds of year, and their use in current English is not rare.”

The usage guide’s advice: “There is no need to make a point of avoiding such usage.”

Another authority, R. W. Burchfield, writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “The phrases in the meantime and in the meanwhile are still to some extent interchangeable, though the former is the more usual.”

As we said above, the definitions of “meantime” and “meanwhile” are identical.

The nouns mean “the time intervening between one particular period or event and another,” the OED says, while the adverbs mean “during the intervening time between one particular period or event and another; while or until a particular event occurs; at the same time; for the present.”

Their parallel histories are interesting to trace. Both words originally showed up as parts of longer phrases.

In its earliest uses, “meantime” was part of the phrase “in the meantime,” which the OED defines as “during or within the time intervening between a particular period or event and a subsequent one; while or until a (specified) period or event occurs.”

OED citations for the phrase date back to 1340, and it appears (as “in the mene tyme”) in a circa 1384 edition of the Wycliffe Bible.

This modern example is from Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington (1988): “We thought … we would soon have to find another job. In the meantime we got on with the job we had.”

“For the meantime” was first recorded in 1480 (as “for the mene tyme”), and means “so long as a period of (intervening) time lasts; for the interim,” the OED says.

The OED’s most recent example is from a 1990 issue of the journal Modern Railways: “For the meantime he has a tremendous task, compounded by the managerial and organisational changes racking BR as it attempts to meld the Sectors and production.”

But “meantime” has been used as a stand-alone adverb since the late 16th century. Oxford’s earliest example is from Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593: “Mean time my lord of Penbrooke and my selfe Will to Newcastell heere, and gather head.”

The dictionary’s examples continue into modern times. The most recent is from BBC Top Gear Magazine (1999): “Ferrari is readying a fully convertible version of the fab 360 Modena…. Meantime, the 360 comes with a removable-panel sunshine roof option.”

Like “meantime,” the noun “meanwhile” first appeared as part of a phrase: “in the meanwhile” (dating to before 1375) and “for the meanwhile” (circa 1390).

This modern example is from a 1986 issue of the Daily Telegraph (London): “In the meanwhile, the Government is effectively admitting that state spending is out of control.”

And this one is from a 1993 novel, Will Self’s My Idea of Fun: “I didn’t know who or where to turn to. So for the meanwhile I continued with my ritualised observances.”

But like you, most people are more comfortable with “meanwhile” used solo as an adverb, a usage first recorded (as “mene whyle”) in 1440.

This elegant example is from D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow (1915): “Meanwhile the brook slid on coldly, chuckling to itself.”

And here’s one from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934): “He … took a small beer on the terrace of the station buffet, meanwhile watching the little bug crawl down the eighty-degree slope of the hill.”

As you can see from all the examples, sometimes these adverbs and adverbial phrases appear at the beginning of sentences and sometimes later; sometimes they’re set off by commas and sometimes they’re not.

We can’t sign off without mentioning the phrase “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” which the OED says was “originally used in western stories and films, introducing a subsidiary plot; now chiefly humorous and in extended use.”

In Oxford’s earliest example, the phrase is in its infancy and lacks the word “back.” It’s from a classic of the genre, Zane Grey’s novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912):

“Meantime, at the ranch, when Judkins’s news had sent Venters on the trail of the rustlers, Jane Withersteen led the injured man to her house.”

Fowler’s says the complete phrase (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch”) originally appeared as a subtitle in silent Western films and was later “promoted from caption to voice-over.”

The OED’s first published example of the complete phrase is from a 1940 issue of the Oakland Tribune: “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sandy’s dog, Pat, began to whine.”

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