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What does directly commonly mean in standard AmEng when used as a temporal adverb,

immediately/instantly/at once/right away/without delay

-or-

soon/shortly/in a little while?

DIRECTLY

At once; instantly: Leave directly.

Chiefly Southern US In a little while; shortly: He'll be coming directly (emphasis is mine.)

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

At once; without delay.

Shortly; soon.

Usage note:

immediately, instantly, directly, presently were once close synonyms, all denoting complete absence of delay or any lapse of time. immediately and instantly still almost always have that sense and usu. mean at once: He got up immediately. She responded instantly to the request. directly is usu. equivalent to soon, in a little while rather than at once: You go ahead, we'll join you directly.

Random House Kennerman Webster's College Dictionary

Please, consider:

Have a seat, Dr. Campbell will be with you directly.

She fell asleep directly after she went to bed.

Does that mean,

Dr. Campbell will be right with you/will be with you right away/with no delay.

She fell asleep immediately/right after she went to bed.

-or-

Dr. Campbell will be with you shortly/soon/in a little while.

She fell asleep shortly/soon after she went to bed.

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    This is probably a concessive interpretation. Directly and immediately 'were once close synonyms', but 'Mr X will be with you directly' often had a truth value of zero. Because shortly / as soon as he is able to be were more accurate temporal expressions, the 'directly' usage broadened to include these. Possibly regrettable, but typical. Mar 8, 2016 at 11:08
  • In that case, we'd have to go through the dictionary and update quite a few words: shortly, few (as in 'a few minutes'), momentarily. We'd also have to change "unusual" to mean "usual", as in "We're experiencing unusually high call volumes." I have never not gotten that message when calling certain companies over a 20-year period :)
    – TimR
    Mar 8, 2016 at 13:32
  • I don't think it is a temporal adverb. It actually addresses sequence or priority when used as a sentential adverb. It's aspect is that the action will be begun next, and will be continued with out any dallying. If you know the context, you should be able to form an estimate of the time involved.
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 13, 2016 at 15:08

2 Answers 2

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Directly should mean "right away" – "with no delay" – as we (want to) take it usually.

But, as it's not exactly a "now", that means your Dr Campbell is currently at that time doing something else. So if Dr Campbell has a hard time on what he is doing now, it may take a while before you see him.

For ex. you may not see him before 50 minutes because it depends how much time it takes your dentist (Yes ! Brandon Campbell is a dentist in Barstow near Orlando, Fl.) to end what he is doing actually to meet you immediatly after, directly.

Directly means as soon as possible with no garantee of time limit.

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  • I don't understand your first sentence. RHK Webster's (above) says: 'directly is usu. equivalent to soon, in a little while rather than at once'. Why should we want to use it in a less usual way than most people (Webster's basing their data on decent surveys) do? And 'as we take it usually' obviously contradicts the Webster's findings. Mar 8, 2016 at 10:58
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    Because each word is an idiom. Dictionnary are only definitionS that freeze the sense of the expresison we use. You may not take a word like I do because you, I and our vocabulary are living to express the life. The main goal is to understand each other, not at 100% but at 51%. So what I wrote above doesn't contradict Webster as "soon" may be 3 seconds to minutes....
    – DAVE
    Mar 8, 2016 at 11:27
  • 'Directly should mean "right away" as we take it usually' certainly contradicts 'directly is usually [not] equivalent to at once'. Mar 8, 2016 at 11:44
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+50

As you have stated, this is another Southernism.

Though it may have been widely used at one time, 'directly' in this context is most often used today in the Southeastern region of the United States. It usually means something along the lines of 'soon' or 'shortly' or 'as soon as possible.' Your example,

Have a seat, Dr. Campbell will be with you directly.

could be rewritten as

Have a seat, Dr. Campbell will be with you as soon as he is able.

or

Have a seat, Dr. Campbell will be with you shortly.

There is no connotation of length of time associated with 'directly' in this context, but it is most often used when the length of wait is not expected to be excessive. A few hours is OK, but if someone is going to be waiting for 3 days, you probably wouldn't use 'directly.'

For longer waits in the South, after'while is more acceptable.

Well, I reckon we'll be a'fixin granddaddy's tractor after'while.

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