I'm reading The Ghost Brigades, a science-fiction book by John Scalzi (also proprietor of the always-entertaining Whatever blog). He keeps using the word presently to mean "soon." I thought this was wrong, and I was going to blog about how it means "now" and how it just sounds wrong to be used the other way, with all sorts of references to back me up. Turns out I'm sort of wrong, but not completely. Guess I'll use all those references to explain.
We'll start with Webster's New World, which gives these definitions for the adjective:
"1. In a little while; soon 2. at present; now: a usage objected to by some 3. [Archaic] at once, instantly."
Garner's Modern American Usage explains the archaic bit and gives some advice:
"Presently contains an ambiguity. In the days of Shakespeare, it meant "immediately." Soon its meaning evolved into "after a short time" (perhaps because people exaggerated about their promptitude). This sense is still current. Then, chiefly in American English, it took on the additional sense "at present, currently." This use is poor, however, because it both causes the ambiguity and displaces a simpler word ("now" or, if more syllables are necessary, "at present" or "currently").
The OED gives both definitions, as well as the archaic one, but has this to say about the use of it to mean "now":
Apparently avoided in literary use between the 17th and 20th centuries, but in regular use in most English dialects and by Scottish writers; revived in the 20th century in the U.S., subsequently in Britain and elsewhere. Regarded by some usage writers, esp. after the mid 20th cent., as erroneous or ambiguous.
So apparently this "new" misuse is a meaning that has been around for a long time.
And here's John McIntyre's thoughts on it:
My sense is that you are right in suspecting that the "sometime soon" sense is increasingly dated and is being supplanted by the "now" sense. (And yes, it is a windy and pompous substitution, of the sort one finds in office memos.)
For my own part, as a son of Appalachia, I prefer directly, pronounced as my grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early said it, something between d’rectly and dreckly. It is roughly equivalent of manana: “Yes, Kathleen, I’ll put the book down and rake those remaining leaves from last fall directly.”
I agree with Garner and McIntytre that it's probably not a good word to use to mean "now" because actually using the word now is shorter and won't cause any confusion. And come to think of it, "soon" is also shorter and won't cause confusion. Maybe it's just an unnecessary word, especially because it means different things to different people and is not always clear from the context.
UPDATE (10:53 a.m. Sept. 4): I've restated my position a bit here.