Continuing to make my way through ancient requests, Susie wrote back in January (oh, the neglect!) to request coverage of directly. She's probably given up on reading this blog by now, but at least I hadn't promised to discuss it directly.

The word directly, of course, is found in both AmE and BrE, as in:
Try to involve everyone, not just those directly in front of you. [University of Kent Careers Advisory Service, Tips on Making Presentations]
But the use of directly to mean 'shortly' or 'very soon', is mostly AmE--though the OED indicates that it's also BrE dialectal (but which dialects? do you know?). It's that sense of the word that's used when a (AmE) salesclerk/(BrE) shop assistant says:
I'll be with you directly.
...before they ignore you in order to deal with another customer.

For this meaning, shortly works in BrE (as well as AmE), but when I asked Better Half what he'd say instead of I'll do that directly, he said that he'd say I'll do that later. When I countered that that doesn't mean the same thing, he claimed that as a British person, he was less likely than an American to want to tie himself down to anything more specific. I think he was joking (he's rarely not joking), but if you'd like to protest or support his contention, feel free to do so in the comments!

Afterthought (the next morning): A good South African equivalent is just now, which confused (or maybe annoyed) me to no end when I first arrived there and went to a party with a co-worker. He kept saying We'll leave just now and so I'd fetched my bag or whatever and found myself waiting while he drank another drink, and another, and had another conversation...

Note that the dialectal differences involving directly and just now are not about whether they are used to talk about time, which they generally are in a lot of dialects, but whether they're used to mean 'not immediately, but soonish', which tends to be more dialect-specific. Just now in my native AmE dialect can mean 'in the very recent past' and directly can mean 'immediately' in most dialects.


  1. "I'll be with you directly": is it perhaps the dialect of long since, the Brenglish of Dad's Army?

  2. I don't think I've ever used directly to mean shortly. Of course, in my retail years in college, I don't think I ever said, "I'll be with you shortly" either. More like, "I'll be right with you" or "I'll be with you in a moment."

    "But the use of directly to mean 'shortly' or 'very soon', is mostly AmE..."

    I would have guessed BrE. Huh.

  3. Directly does have a certain level of formality that might lead many AmE speakers to think of it as BrE, as we tend to conflate the two.

  4. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:
    directly adverb
    1 OLD-FASHIONED OR FORMAL very soon: Dr Schwarz will be with you directly.

    2 OLD-FASHIONED immediately: When you get home you're going directly to bed.

    American Heritage Dictionary:
    ... 4. At once; instantly: Leave directly. ... 6. Chiefly Southern U.S. In a little while; shortly: He'll be coming directly.

  5. "I'll do that presently" might also serve BH well, while confusing the USians.

  6. It doesn't sound unBritish to me, but I would associate it not so much with a shop assistant but with somebody like a doctor's receptionist who's enjoying their little bit of power.

    While we're (sort of) on the subject, any comments on UK v US 'momentarily'?

  7. Directly in the sense of 'shortly' or 'very soon' is very definitely BrE dialectal here in the south-west (Devon / Cornwall) - usually pronounced (and often written, for example ) in these parts as dreckly.

  8. Oops, I messed up the html in the comment above, but it still seems to work. Maybe I should correct it? I'll do it dreckly. (In this sense, dreckly is a little like the Spanish maƱana, but without the urgency.)

  9. Sorry! I don't know how to correct this!

  10. strawman, perhaps this will work. . otherwise, somebody needs to edit your first comment to close the a tag.

    Anyway, back to directly. A common BrEng usage that sounds very similar to me would be 'straight away' or 'right away': 'I'll get down to it right away'.

    And let's not forget: 'When we get home, you're going straight to bed!'

  11. Lynn,

    Two comments...

    First, I had to chuckle when reading the statement, "I'll be with you directly." That reminds me of my paternal grandfather, who was born in Arkansas in 1898 but grew up in Oklahoma. Note, though, that he pronounced it "DIE-wreckly"!

    And second, I really appreciate your mention of "just now", as used in South Africa. I've run into that expression almost every time I've gone to Cape Town to teach, and it's always been a little confusing. Thanks.


  12. I associate directly with series, not temporality. Doing something directly means putting it next in the queue, regardless of when I get to it. This probably comes from thinking about direct connections, and possibly even with directions, as in completing steps A then B then C in direct fashion. Going directly to bed and going straight to bed would mean going to bed as the first order of business, not necessarily immediately, but instead of circuitous means such as dinner or television.

  13. IIRC from my days working for a South African company, now now was the equivalent of BrE now.

  14. "Presently" is synonymous, surely.

    Isn't what BH getting at the fact that while presently/directly literally mean straight away, in practice they always mean "I'll do something else first"? So "later" is more accurate/honest.

  15. I used to manage complaints for a hospital and I once redirected a complaint to the local ambulance trust saying " ... could you respond to them directly" meaning without going through me. I thought the meaning was obvious from the context, but I got an irate response saying that they always replied promptly and that they would answer the complaint within the time limit set by the NHS.

  16. Directly used in this sense sounds very odd to my AmE ears, to the point that reading the title I assumed you were going to say it was BrE. Thinking about it more it's something I've heard only in AmE, but very rarely and it sounds very formal to my ears.

    I asked my mother what she thought, just to get a second native opinion and she agreed that it sounded formal, and also a bit stilted, as if 'the speaker was trying to assert more power than they actually had.' To me it sounds like the kind of thing a receptionist/secretary for someone high-powered might say, to put you in your place.

    Either way it seems very ... odd to me, even in AmE.

  17. "i'll be with you directly" sounds incredibly strange to me and I don't think i've ever heard it (in the midwestern US)

  18. I don't think I've ever actually heard "I'll be with you directly." (Am/E). Except maybe in movies, Southern or Western mock dialects. I'll be with you in a minute, I'll get to that next, sure. Directly, as I've heard it, is mostly directional. I would also have thought it more (Br/E.)

  19. I have to agree that as a native AmE speaker, I, too, thought "I'll be with you directly" was BrE. I even pronounced it in my head with a British accent as I read it. For the record, I've lived in the midwest, northeast, southeast, and midatlantic parts of the U.S.

  20. Conversely, and if being honest, many people would say something along the lines of "I'll do it when I get around to it" which leads to the well-known joke about the 'round tuit' [A google search reveals various suppliers both UK and US including this one] Many years ago I was working as a temp at a local office during the christmas holidays and the boss gave a cardboard 'round tuit' to all his staff - he thought it was amusing, they were all thoroughly insulted ;-)

  21. Formality? I would expect to hear "I'll be with you directly" from someone with very little education. If an educated person said it, I'd be shocked. In plain terms, it's ultra-hick language, and I'd expect the person who used it to have a blade of hay in their mouth and pronounce it die-reckly.

  22. I think the formality perception is a regional one. Reminds me a little of the discussion of reckon back here.

  23. Hello, I love this blog though I have nothing to do with anything American! My wife, however, does run her own language school and it helps me keep up.

    Being of Cornish origin I thought I would mention the Kernow phrase "d'reckly" (sp?) which means "it will be done sometime in the future, honest gov"! That is to say, when the speaker can be bothered. Usage: "Can you move that tractor", "Yep, I do it d'reckly".

  24. Morning
    As a South African I've had exactly the reverse problem with "just now". Telling some furriner I'd deal with whatever they put on my desk just now and have them hover looking annoyed as I continued with what I was busy with even knowing that it still catches me sometimes EG someone saying we can deal with something just now and get annoyed when I wander off for half an hour.

  25. I recently read Casino Royale by Ian Fleming who employs the use of 'directly' to mean 'immediately'. As a Brit, I'd never seen it used in this way before, and was mildly perturbed and disgruntled to see it.

    I also remember my annoyance upon hearing a South African friend using 'Just now' to mean 'in a bit' or 'soon', as British usage indicates 'just now' to mean something that just occurred in the past, not the future.

  26. Jim Faherty

    the use of 'directly' to mean 'immediately'. As a Brit, I'd never seen it used in this way before

    The problem, Jim, is that directly and immediately are both used in different senses, very often as near synonyms. I thought you were objecting to the meaning 'immediately afterwards in time' — which for this Bri is his late 60's is a very common meaning of directly.

    I wrote a reply and almost posted it. But then I thought I'd try the Amazon Look inside feature. To my surprise, the majority of hits for directly were uses in the unusual sense of 'as soon as'. To me, it's not unusual, but it's unusual to find an author using it as much as Fleming does.

    This sense is listed in the OED, and also in the COBUILD dictionary which lists only the statistically most frequent uses of words. 'As soon as' is the least common sense, but not so rare as to be omitted from the dictionary.

    hearing a South African friend using 'Just now' to mean 'in a bit' or 'soon'

    The OED lists this meaning as dialectal and American. It's too rare in British English to be includied in COBUILD.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)