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goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“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.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“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. […] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“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?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.

What does momentarily mean?  It’s a bone of contention for many prescriptivists, who insist that it must mean “for a moment”, not “in a moment”.  It’s a common enough debate to have appeared in an episode of Sports Night, when Dana (the show’s executive producer) begins discussing this point in the midst of preparing for that night’s show. (Video of the exchange here, if the embedded bit below doesn’t work.)

DANA: Momentarily does not mean “in a moment.”
DAVE: Here’s 2 dissolving to 3.
DANA: Thank you. It means “for a moment.”
DANA: That makes me crazy.
JEREMY: We’ve been wondering what the source was.
DANA: Let’s see a graphic for Seattle.
CHRIS: Coming.
DANA: It means “for a moment,” not “in a moment.”
CHRIS: Seattle’s up.
DANA: On the plane when they say “We’ll be landing momentarily,” I call over a flight attendant, and I tell them, “if we land momentarily, it won’t give the passengers enough time to get off the plane.”
JEREMY: And once safely inside the airport, how long do they usually detain you for questioning?
DANA: Well, they know me by now.

But is Dana correct?  If Sports Night had been set in the 1830s, then she may have been.  But in our modern world, she is not.

Let’s go through a quick history of momentarily, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.  Momentarily is first attested in 1654, with the “for a moment” meaning.  Two other meanings, “instantly” and “at every moment”, popped up in the 18th century.  The newest meaning, “in a moment”, is first attested by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1869.  Interestingly, the MWDEU notes that momentarily — with any of these meanings — was used only rarely until the 20th century.  Then, in the early 20th century, momentarily usage picked up.  It was the “for a moment” sense that became popular first, and the “in a moment” sense followed shortly thereafter.  (The other two meanings never hit the big time.)

This popularity lag is probably the source of the modern concern that “for a moment” is the more original, more pure sense, and “in a moment” the interloper.  It doesn’t help that the “in a moment” meaning is “chiefly North American” (according to the OED), which prescriptivists generally interpret as meaning “a boorish American misusage”.  But the truth is that both meanings are more than 140 years old.  If you’re concerned about ambiguity, take heart in the fact that it’s unlikely that the two meanings will be confused:

(1a) You will be sent to the new Environmantal [sic] Laboratory site momentarily or you may click here.
(1b) […] the Pacific breezes momentarily gave way to a brisker wind.

That’s not to say that they could never be confused, because they can if you leave out the context:

(2a) I will visit your house momentarily, (as I’m only a few blocks away.)
(2b) I will visit your house momentarily, (since I have to hurry to another engagement.)

But context usually offers the necessarily disambiguation. And if you were really that concerned about ambiguity, there’d be a lot of words more common than momentarily that you’d have to avoid. (For instance, did my use of common in the last sentence mean “not rare” or “undistinguished”? I don’t know myself.)

Lastly, both usages are accepted as standard by the MWDEU and the Columbia Guide to Standard American English. That said, “in a moment” isn’t without its detractors; the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel is a holdout, with only 41% of the panel accepting it. But all that means is that 59% of the panel is uninformed.

Summary: Momentarily can mean either “for a moment” or “in a moment”.  Both meanings are over 140 years old, and both date back to before the word momentarily was common.  Allowing for both meanings doesn’t introduce much ambiguity.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

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I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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