Presently * meaning "in a very short time, soon", is a widely accepted term, but why does its usage meaning "at the present time, currently" still remain an open area for dispute?

Disputed usage: I am presently reading an financial paper.

Undisputed usage: I will be finished with my meeting presently.

Usage note: The meaning “now” of presently dates back to the 15th century; it is currently in standard use in all varieties of speech and writing. The sense “soon” arose gradually during the 16th century. Strangely, it is the older sense “now” that usage guides sometimes object to. The two senses are rarely if ever confused. presently meaning “now” is most often used with the present tense (The professor is presently on sabbatical leave) and presently meaning “soon” often with the future tense (The supervisor will be back presently) Source: Webster Dic.

Usage note: An original meaning of presently was "at the present time; currently." That sense is said to have disappeared from the literary language in the 17th century, but it has survived in popular usage and is widely found nowadays in literate speech and writing. Still, there is a lingering prejudice against this use. The sentence General Walters is ... presently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations was acceptable to only 48 percent of the Usage Panel in the 1999 survey. Source: The America Heritage Dic.

Usage note: both senses 1)"in a very short time" and 2)" at the present time" are flourishing in current English, but many commentators have objected to sense 2. Since this sense has been in continuous use since the 15th century, it is not clear why it is objectionable. Perhaps a note in the Oxford English Dictionary (1909) that the sense has been obsolete since the 17th century in literary English is to blame, but the note goes on to observe that the sense is in regular use in most English dialects. The last citation in that dictionary is from a 1901 Leeds newspaper, written in Standard English. Sense 2 is most common in contexts relating to business and politics Source: Merriam Web. Dictionary

  • Related: When and how did “momentarily” come to mean “in a moment”, rather than “for a moment”?. As this NGram shows, the presently=currently usage has become much more popular in recent decades (significantly more so in AmE than BrE). Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 12:35
  • So the"prejudice" against its use, as highlighted in the Usage notes reported, is overstated in your opinion?
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 12:40
  • 1
    I'm not sure whether your "prejudice" reflects actual usage or pedantic opinion. It seems to me both usages are rather dated - we now use currently and shortly/soon Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:00
  • The 'lingering prejudice" is taken from the usage note from The American Dic, anyway your note that "presently" is a bit out-of-date is interesting.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:13
  • I'd imagine my position is typical. I've no particular "preference" for either usage. I'm perfectly familiar with both - and as you say, the intended sense is invariably obvious in context. But I doubt I've actually used the word myself (with either meaning) for decades. I consider it stuffy and stilted, as well as dated. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:43

1 Answer 1


I think your disputed and undisputed examples are the wrong way round.

The original meaning of presently is in the present, the action is taking place now. There is no dispute in that.

It has come to mean soon in modern usage. This is accepted by most people but there are purists who object to its use with this meaning.

  • 1
    Pls support you answer with documented evidence, I could not find any that objects to the use of presently meaning "soon".
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:04
  • @Josh61 there's me, for a start. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 23:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.