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Check your guns at the door

I told you that I’m not going back to the Second Amendment. Instead, I’ll take time to respond to readers.

Patricia Witkin wonders about presently: “I had it drilled into my head that presently=soon, not "at present," which is how I see/hear it (mis)used all the time. People seem to think it sounds fancier than "currently" or, better yet, "now." The only time I encounter the correct usage is when I'm watching old movies, leading me to wonder if this is one of those things that has become forgotten/abused/discarded over time, to the point where the two words are accepted as interchangeable.”

Merriam-Webster’s finds that presently has a long history in both senses, right now and sometime soon, and suggests indulgently that the meaning can usually be inferred from context. Garner’s suggests avoiding the word because of potential confusion. My sense is that you are right in suspecting that the sometime soon sense is increasingly dated and is being supplanted by the now sense. (And yes, it is a windy and pompous substitution, of the sort one finds in office memos.)

For my own part, as a son of Appalachia, I prefer directly, pronounced as my grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early said it, something between d’rectly and dreckly. It is roughly equivalent of manana: “Yes, Kathleen, I’ll put the book down and rake those remaining leaves from last fall directly.”

Steve Merelman writes in annoyance about a headline in a paper published 40 miles south of here ”Bearest Thy Musket.” He’s right; the est suffix in archaic English is properly limited to the second-person singular, as the eth suffix is limited to the third-person singular. And it is not the imperative form. Tsk.

A reader submitted a complaint to my boss, Paul Moore, about a passage in one of our articles, “Chief Legal Council Karen Hornig and Deputy Legal Counsel Ronald M. Levitan,” saying, rightly, that the word is counsel and wondering how we got it right in one place and wrong in one place in the same sentence. Inattention to detail.

Moreover, chief legal counsel and deputy legal counsel are job descriptions, not formal titles, and have no business being capitalized. It doesn’t matter that every Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief likes a massed formation of capital letters before his name; we don’t have to do it.

And, by the way, it was a reader of this blog, one Bryan, saying, “I enjoy your blog tremendously and count myself among the (usually) silent majority that appreciate the good fight your regular job entails,” who made the suggestion that I explore the sense of the word militia in the context of the Second Amendment. Ah, life in the crosshairs.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:28 AM | | Comments (6)


I have always enjoyed "anon," which Webster's New World defines delightfully, in this order, as:

1 [Archaic] immediately; at once 2 a) soon; shortly b) at another time: now nearly archaic or a self-conscious usage

That pretty much covers the concept of "I said 'now' but I really meant 'whenever.'"


Forsooth, if hand and heart be bound, entwined
And penta-meter, Iambicly inclined,
Thy, 'thee's and, 'thou's must surely rise, a'now
To put thy, '...est's where puttest thou thine, 'THOU's!
As person of the second, grammar runs,
I bethink I'll stick unto my guns.

I bear, thou bearest, he/she/it beareth, we bear, ye bear, they bear ...

I believe that's the way it should go, if I remember my KJV correctly.

Whatever was I thinking? Mr. Grau is entirely correct, and I have revised the entry to make "est" second person rather than third. Many thanks.

And, to close the loop, I heard "presently" used in its original meaning just last night while watching Turner Classic Movies. It was in Hitchcock's first version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934, British, not the Stewart/Day version)
Quote: mother to daughter who interrupts skeet shooting contest: "Ask me presently!"


Ok. Too subtle.

I really tried to do it, sir, I practiced and rehearsed,
But, like me, my poetry has gone from bad to verse.
The second person nominative professed by mister Grau?
I said it first, although in verse, I think you must allow.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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