Friday, 13 July 2012


I got an email from Grammar Girl last week to advertise her book 101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in no Time. The word in question was momentarily.

What's the Trouble? Momentarily is losing its original meaning.

Momentarily has its roots in the word momentary — as in the Pink Floyd album A Momentary Lapse of Reason — and it traditionally means "for a moment." However, it's more common nowadays to hear people use momentarily when they mean "in a moment." The Oxford English Dictionary says this is mainly an American problem.

What Should You Do?

Don't use momentarily to mean "in a moment"; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There's no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.
If it's more common for people to use momentarily to mean "in a moment", then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying "don't speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks." This seems counterproductive.

She gives two reasons. The first is that it might confuse people - but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing? The second is that it might annoy language purists - in other words, "speak like a small select group of people want you to speak", in other words, crazies win.

And it's not true that the word is losing its original meaning. The word has two meanings, both of which are normal English. Gabe at Motivated Grammar has a good discussion of the dispute, and he sensibly concludes that allowing for both meanings of momentarily won't cause a lot of ambiguity. I mean, if I'm on a plane and the pilot says "We'll be landing momentarily", I don't think that means the plane will land and then take off immediately. Yes, that's one way to interpret the sentence, but it's a way that doesn't tally with how I know the world works.


Jonathon Owen said...

Garner makes a similar argument against sentential hopefully. He says that it's ubiquitous and is found even in reputable publications, but then he says that careful writers avoid hopefully even in the traditional sense because they're likely to be misunderstood. So is everyone else careless? And where's the evidence that it's so ambiguous and confusing?

And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?

Anonymous said...

In the UK, trains stop 'momentarily' at a station, meaning briefly, not 'in a moment', so although this would not make sense with an aeroplane, with a train it has just that meaning. But this is a difference between British and American English...

goofy said...

I think you're right. MWDEU says that in British English, the "at any moment" meaning is rare.