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Phone conversation:

A: How are you? Everything's okay?

B: Yeah.

A: I've called you a few times, but you haven't picked up or called back.

B: No, I've been busy.

A: Really? Okay. But do you think I could come by soon? Or are you too busy?

Question: When reading the dialogue, could soon mean anything from later that day to several days later or longer? If the intention is the latter, would you keep soon? Or could I use sometime soon to make it more clear?

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  • 16
    Soon is whatever the speaker means by it. Sep 8, 2020 at 16:51
  • 3
    “Soon” may also mean “never”, and be used as a polite way to brush someone off by deferring an action that they have requested to an indefinite future that never actually arrives.
    – Mike Scott
    Sep 8, 2020 at 20:08
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    I know someone who did a thesis on an AI system whose job it was to read sentences in English, identify the time senses involved, and simply parse these into concrete of time (with some appropriate fuzz/confidence level). With regard to "soon", they never got any further than @KateBunting's probably-best-possible answer. (To quote the popular comedy film "Spaceballs": "When will 'then' be 'now'?" "Soon.")
    – BadZen
    Sep 8, 2020 at 22:08
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    It also functions as a conversational hook: it invites a response, such as "I should have cleared my backlog by Friday", or "I really can't tell -- I'll call you sometime", which have their own connotations. Sep 9, 2020 at 11:05
  • The question title "How soon is soon?" is a valid response for speaker B to request clarification, in a familiar/joking way. More common and formal is just "How soon?". Sep 9, 2020 at 19:12

3 Answers 3

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“Soon” has no specific timeframe, just like “short” has no specific length. At most, you might guess what it means from context, but often you can’t.

For instance, if a mechanic says he’ll repair your car “soon”, he might mean today, or he might mean next week. Either meaning could be “soon” to him depending on how long the repair will take and how many other cars he has to work on.

If the customer wants a deadline, they will respond “How soon?” Or if they have a deadline in mind, they might ask “Will it be done by Friday?”

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  • "I'm going to lunch soon." Probably within the next few minutes. Unlikely that I mean more than half an hour from now. "I plan to retire soon." Likely means within the next few years. "The Sun will burn out soon." Could mean thousands or even millions of years.
    – Jay
    Sep 12, 2020 at 20:07
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It's entirely dependent on context.

'soon', like most other quantitative adjectives and adverbs in English (and most languages for that matter) is inherently relative, and requires some knowledge of the frame of reference to understand what is meant. Other examples in English include most common usage of 'short', 'heavy', and 'simple'. Such adjectives need a frame of reference to be clarified any further. For example, a blue whale is heavy if you are comparing to other animals, but very light if you're comparing to the whole planet. Similarly, ten thousand years from now is 'soon' on a geological time scale, but quite a long time away if you're comparing to the lifespan of a human.

Without knowing that frame of reference, the only conclusion you can draw from the use of 'soon' is that the speaker thinks that whatever event is being discussed will occur in the near future in some frame of reference that's reasonable for the conversation/ In your example with no further context, I'd probably interpret 'soon' as anywhere from some time in the next few hours to some time in the next few weeks.


Note, however, that 'soon' is a special case for two reasons. Depending on context, it can also potentially mean one of two other things:

  • 'We have no idea when this will happen, but are trying to make it happen in the near future.': This usage is mostly seen in business and marketing contexts, especially in the software industry. Essentially, usage like this is a way for the person speaking/writing to try and reassure the listener/reader that the thing being discussed is being actively worked on without committing to a specific timetable for completion.
  • 'Never': Usually seen in video game communities, this comes from a combination of the above usage and the fact that software development (and video game development especially) is a lot more difficult than most people realize. Essentially, gamers hear 'soon' repeatedly with respect to some feature that they want, but it never actually seems to get implemented, so they just start jokingly using 'soon' to mean 'never'.
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"Soon" is a very useful word for conveying ambiguity. If the speaker means "later today" or "several days later", they could use those phrases. Since they didn't, "soon" gives a sense of urgency or imminence without committing the speaker to any particular deadline.

To address your final question, "sometime soon", if anything, increases ambiguity. "Sometime", in this case, acts as an intensifier. Other potential intensifiers ("very", "really", "pretty", etc.) generically give the impression of seriousness, but "sometime" contains a reference to chronology. In fact, "sometime" can be used in place of "soon" to convey "it'll happen, but I won't commit to a timeline". Putting both together allows the speaker to communicate either immediacy or an indeterminate time in the future depending on how the listener wants to hear it.

You might think this sort of ambiguous way of speaking is dishonest. But it serves an important social purpose. It's not uncommon for people to have different priorities. In the sample dialog, A wants to talk and B (presumably) doesn't. A could ask, "But do you think I could come by later today?" That would put B in a place to need to say "no", which means both people are confronted with their different priorities. That might lead to hurt feelings or unease.

Instead A used the word "soon", which allows the other person to interpret the intention. Maybe they can find a compromise between "later today" and "never"? B might answer, "I have to finish something this week, but we could get together on Saturday". Not what A was hoping for, perhaps, but better than complete rejection.

To clarify, people don't usually put a lot of thought into this. "Soon" just rolls out of our mouths because we have an intuitive sense that it's the right word for the situation. Using other words or phrases isn't necessarily going to cause hard feelings. And in some cases, "soon" can be understood as dismissive because it doesn't commit to a particular time. As a rule, one word choice isn't critical since it's just one part of the context that people use to understand each other.

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