Present Perfect

Here are three sentences, drawn from an Internet search:

  • “Legalizers suggest that heroin should be used much in the same way as is morphine presently… .”
  • “[I] am from India, presently residing in the United States.”
  • “Where are you presently in your career?”

The above uses of presently are incorrect – or at least dicey enough to warrant rephrasing the sentences. The word is used correctly in this sentence: “Bill is almost finished with the Thompson audit and he will presently begin work on the Witherspoon report.”

Hundreds of years ago, presently meant “now.” But it subsequently came to mean “soon,” “later,” “in a while.” Today, once again, people frequently use it in the “now” sense. But the “later” meaning is regarded as standard.

It’s easy to imagine how this ambiguity might result in confusion. Understanding whether something is happening now or will occur later could be important. So it’s best to avoid the word entirely and substitute now, currently, or at present. These alternatives are simpler and clearer. In communication, that’s always a good thing.

Can you recall when and where you first encountered certain words?

As a kid in the 1950s and early ’60s, I was a fan of superhero comic books. A convention of the genre was to caption the top of a panel “Presently…” I was puzzled by it at first, but quickly realized that the action in the captioned panel was happening at a later time, not simultaneously with the previous sequence. That’s how I learned the word and its proper meaning.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.