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by Lionel E. Deimel


I have been in many losing arguments about word usage. I don't really mean to argue this topic, but my well-meaning observations about words too often invoke defensiveness in others. I lose arguments less because I choose or am forced to concede defeat, but because the other person in the discussion ultimately doesn't care or invokes a too-forgiving standard of correctness.

An encounter typical of many I’ve had was dramatized recently on the ABC sitcom “Sports Night.”Stopwatch Dana insisted that “momentarily” means “for a moment," not “in a moment.” Someone pointed out to her that the dictionary countenances both meanings, and that seemed to end the argument. It would be for most people, who would conclude that both meanings are “correct.”

Just as legality does not imply propriety, however, neither does acceptance imply desirability. The big problem with admitting both meanings is that ambiguity is sometimes created, as in: “The doctor will see you momentarily.” In this age of HMOs, one might actually expect that the doctor intends to see the patient for only a moment, though the intended meaning is likely that the patient will be seen after a brief delay. We don’t actually need “momentarily” here; other phrases—and even other single words—will do just fine. Consider using “soon,” “shortly,” “in a moment,” or (curiously) “presently.” “Momentarily,” in the other sense, is harder to replace. “Briefly” comes close in meaning, though it seems to refer to a somewhat longer period of time. This leaves us with phrases like “for a moment,” “for an instant” (but not “instantaneously”), or “for a second.”

The “for a moment” meaning of “momentarily” is clearly older and seems more closely related to to the rest of the language. “Momentary” is often used to refer to short-lived phenomena, as in “momentary lapse”  or “momentary-contact switch.” It never means “in a time in the very near future.” By the way, “momentarily” can also mean “moment by moment” or “progressively,” though, apparently, not very often.

— LED, 2/6/2000

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