Saturday, September 26, 2009

Watch out for those tricky contronyms or antagonyms!

The English language has its generous share of words that can mean the opposite of themselves. Such words, for which some grammar pundits have coined the terms contronyms and antagonyms*, include “bound” (which could mean either “moving” or “tied up”), “cleave” ( “to cut,” “to seal together”), citation (“award for good behavior,” “penalty for bad behavior”), “oversight” (“error from carelessness,” “watchful care”), “fast” (“moving rapidly,” “fixed in position”), and “ravished” (“raped,” or “overcame by delight”). They obviously could give us trouble if we aren’t careful enough, so it pays to be watch out for their skulking presence in the language.

As I’m sure you’ll remember now, one very commonly used contronym is “presently,” which could either mean “at present” or “very soon.” I confess that I often catch myself about to utter it to mean “at present”—this stands to reason from its spelling and sound—but some dialogue in a British movie in my mind stops me on my tracks and quickly redirects me to a safer word like “now” or a tamer phrase like “at this time.”

So precisely how do we use “presently” with the least danger of embarrassing ourselves? Or would it be wise to avoid using this tricky word together and use one of its more reliable and surefire synonyms? In the essay below that I wrote for my “English Plain and Simple” column at about this time last year, “Is ‘presently’ present or future?”, I offer some prescriptions and caveats for dealing with that slippery adverb without earning a reputation for being English-challenged.

*Contronyms, antagonyms. Both of these nouns are still neologisms, or new words whose existence is not yet acknowledged by the mainstream dictionaries. From what I can gather, the term "contronyms" was coined by Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English; Jim Ellis, in his family website, lays claim to having coined the term “antagonym.”

Is “presently” present or future?

Let’s settle this vexing word-choice problem once and for all: Do we use the adverb “presently” to mean “at present” or “very soon”? I realize that I had already taken a position on this matter years before in this column—that the word should mean “very soon” and not “at present”—and I must admit that when I’m copyediting manuscripts, I always itch to change “presently” to “now” when the author had obviously used the word in that sense, as in “The couple presently lives in a charming little apartment.” But then, when I watch a British movie with snotty butler telling snotty master “I’ll be with you presently, sir,” I’m absolutely sure that the word means “very soon” instead.

The truth of the matter is that “presently” has two acceptable senses in current usage: “currently” or “at the present time,” and “very soon” or “in a short time.” The neologisms “antagonym” and “contranym” have been coined for words like this, which could sometimes mean the opposite of itself. At any rate, The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that “at the present time” or “currently” was actually the original sense of “presently,” one that dates back to the late 14th century. For some reason, though, the usage seems to have disappeared from the written record in the 17th century. This disappearance, my digital Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary implies, was probably what prompted the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary to declare in 1909 that that sense of the word had become obsolete—even as the OED observed that the sense remained in regular use in most English dialects.

Since then, some language critics have became partial against the “now” sense of “presently,” declaring it erroneous usage. They insist that “presently” should be used only in its primary sense of “soon” or “in a short time.” In fact, according to The American Heritage Book of English Usage, only 50 percent of its Usage Panel found the “now” sense of “presently” acceptable. (In one recent official count, the Usage Panel had 180 members, including such notables as Jacques Barzun, educator; Alfred Kazin, English professor; Henry Louis Gates Jr., humanities professor; Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Pat Conroy, novelists; Paul Theroux, travel writer; and William Zinsser, writer-editor.) This, of course, puts sentences like “The 29th Olympics is presently being held in Beijing” in serious jeopardy. Indeed, it’s obvious that if the Usage Panel had their way, they’d rather restate that sentence as “The 29th Olympics is [now, at present, currently] being held in Beijing.”

I must admit that it was the collective judgment of all these English-language notables that had persuaded me to take a firm position in this impasse. I’m not saying that the “now” sense of that word is incorrect, but being not a native English speaker and not bound by a particular English dialect, I’d rather rely on how professional users of American English perceive the meaning of a word than on simple dictionary meaning or anecdotal evidence.

Thus, to avoid confusing myself and my readers, I would never use “presently” in this sense: “They are presently in Boracay Beach on their honeymoon.” Hands down, I would use “now” as first option, and perhaps use “at present” only if I have already used a lot of “nows” in preceding sentences. As to “currently,” I’d shy away from it because the word sounds to me too officious for comfort. These, too, would be my advice to writers who until now are unsure of how to deal with “presently.”

One more question needs to be answered, of course: When do we use “presently” to mean “very soon,” if at all? Well, perhaps when we’re in London to visit the Queen, and the cab driver is badgering us to hurry up while we’re buying some souvenirs, we can tell him with absolute nonchalance: “Just you wait. I’ll be with you presently.”

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, Saturday, August 16, 2008 issue © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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