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I'm reading Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon, and his use of it strikes me each time as needless. Sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Its general use seems to me almost comic, perhaps like in a script where the writer has a poor young woman character speaking with well educated gentry types and says, “Charmed, I'm sure” in a clunky antiquated way that shows she is treading water at best.

Except Pynchon isn't bestowing it on his characters, he's using it in his own narrative. Here are three examples from the beginning of the book:

  1. “Tracking from one group of attendees to another, locating presently a normal-enough-looking citizen with an interest in migratory-bird hunting and conservation stamps, known to collectors as duck stamps, and his perhaps-less-involved wife, Gladys....”

  2. “He and Maxine join a small group who have begun drinking the stuff and passing jars around, presently finding themselves a few miles out of town at El Sueño Tropical, a half-built and for the moment abandoned luxury hotel, screaming through the corridors, swinging across the courtyard on jungle vines, which have found a purchase overhead, chasing lizards and flamingos not to mention one another, and misbehaving on the moldering king-size beds.”

  3. “On that caper it was the Practical Elf who acted as agent and presently bagperson, holding up the Strubels for a sum nicely in excess of what they had initially offered to buy Heidi, the little Polish snip, off.”

The first example seems needless.

The second example works best, but we already knew they were out on the island before this sentence, so it comes off (to me) again as needless fluff usage.

The third example just seems ridiculous. The “caper” was in the past, as was being the bagperson, which has nothing at all to do with the present tense of the novel.

I mean.., this is Thomas Pynchon, and clearly I'm not. I suspect I may be missing something (...treading water at best.)

Maybe it's a purposeful technique to try and take a kind of momentary “snapshot”? Like in a movie with the use of a momentary freeze-frame – some kind of contrast - an intentional artistic decision? Or in music, a stop-time moment?

Or is it simply idiomatic writing that cannot, and need not, be “explained”.

Any light shed on this would be appreciated.

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    This looks like the sense of presently that means soon. I think it may just be a personal style of Pynchon to use it. – Barmar Feb 10 '15 at 23:13
  • It's used a lot in some dialects of American English, and as such is entirely unremarkable. – Robusto Feb 10 '15 at 23:48
  • The first looks like presently = soon, in a short time, which I think is dialectal and/or dated. The second (and more definitely the third) look like a different usage, presently = currently, at this/that time, which I think would be more of an "affectation" coming from a less-trusted source. – FumbleFingers Feb 11 '15 at 0:32
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    This looks like a proposal to begin a discussion, however interesting, rather than a question on topic for the site. In its present form, I'm flagging as too broad or unclear what's being asked. If I'm right that it's off-topic, though, maybe we can suggest a better place for it? – Jim Reynolds Apr 8 '15 at 6:18
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Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers this entry (which includes a usage note) for presently:

presently adv (14c) 1 a archaic : at once b : without undue delay : BEFORE LONG 2 : at the present time : NOW

usage Both senses 1b and 2 are flourishing in current English, but many commentators have objected to sense 2. Since this sense has been in continuous use since 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 {the fastest-rising welfare cost is Medicaid, presently paid by the states and cities —William Safire}

Interestingly, in all three examples that the OP cites, Pynchon seems to be using presently in the (relatively) uncontroversial sense 1b of the word: "without undue delay : BEFORE LONG." Replacing presently with before long in each case, we get these results:

  1. Tracking from one group of attendees to another, locating before long a normal-enough-looking citizen with an interest in migratory-bird hunting and conservation stamps, known to collectors as duck stamps, and his perhaps-less-involved wife, Gladys....

  2. He and Maxine join a small group who have begun drinking the stuff and passing jars around, before long finding themselves a few miles out of town at El Sueño Tropical, a half-built and for the moment abandoned luxury hotel, screaming through the corridors, swinging across the courtyard on jungle vines, which have found a purchase overhead, chasing lizards and flamingos not to mention one another, and misbehaving on the moldering king-size beds.

  3. On that caper it was the Practical Elf who acted as agent and before long bagperson, holding up the Strubels for a sum nicely in excess of what they had initially offered to buy Heidi, the little Polish snip, off.

In none of these three examples does the wording strike me as wacky, objectionable, or in any way incoherent. Each simply uses the older (but still current) sense "before long" of presently instead of the newer (but still old) sense "now" of presently.

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In British English, until about 50 years ago "presently" was commonly used to mean "right now, immediately". Now it has shifted to mean "in a while, later".

  • Your timing is off, fdb. The OED dates that meaning from 1443, and says of the "right now" meaning: "Apparently avoided in literary use between the 17th and 20th centuries, but in regular use in most English dialects and by Scottish writers; revived in the 20th cent. in the U.S., subsequently in Britain and elsewhere. Regarded by some usage writers, esp. after the mid 20th cent., as erroneous or ambiguous." – Colin Fine Feb 11 '15 at 11:57
  • @ColinFine. I was referring to meaning 1 a "Without delay; at once, forthwith, immediately; instantly; quickly, promptly. Now Brit. regional and rare." Your quotation refers to meaning 2 a "At the present time; at this time, at present, now." – fdb Feb 11 '15 at 14:48
  • You're right: my mistake in citing that quote. But my point still stands: the meaning "in a while, before long, soon" (the OED's 1 b) is recorded before 1700. – Colin Fine Feb 11 '15 at 17:37
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The use of presently may have at times been used by the author to indicate what one individual in the narrative was doing in contrast to where they were the last time they were encountered. For instance: in your second example, if the scene had recently shifted back to the discussed couple from a previous point of view. If Maxine had been in a different location when she was last discussed, the author may have felt compelled to gloss over the travel in between. She was presently at a new location.

In the third example, it is the use of presently to explain that this is not a typical role for the Practical Elf.

I found myself presently a lifeguard when no one was around to save the baby from drowning.

However, the context is not complete enough to be certain. It could instead be merely a way of separating two descriptions of the past. As this is written in the past tense, the Practical Elf may have (long ago) been an agent and is (as of the time of this narration) now a bagperson.

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