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Short version of my question: Can we use a word 'directly' when want to say 'just a moment' or 'I'll be ready right away'? And, if yes, do native speakers often do it?


Long version:

I've been reading Resurrection, a novel by Leo Tolstoy, and encountered an unfamiliar to me use of a word 'directly'.

There's an episode when a protagonist guides an englishman to Russian prison. When the protagonist stops to talk to a prisoner and takes too long, the englishman asks 'Are you ready?'. The protagonist answers 'Directly', which is translated into russian by the author in brackets like 'just a moment'.

I never encountered this usage of the word 'directly'. May it be some kind of old English since the novel is written in 19th century? It could be lack of knowledge of English language by the author but Leo Tolstoy was known to be a good English speaker. Anyway, the phrase is too simple to make a mistake in it unintentionally. Same thing about the character - it is told that he knows English well:

The fact of his speaking English, French, and German with a good accent, and of his wearing the best linen, clothes, ties, and studs, bought from the most expensive dealers in these goods, he quite knew would not serve as a reason for claiming superiority.

Here's the quote from the novel in Russian:

Какая вы хорошая женщина! - сказал он.
Я-то хорошая? - сказала она сквозь слезы, и жалостная улыбка осветила ее лицо.
Are you ready? [Вы готовы? (англ., перевод Л. Н. Толстого)] - спросил между тем англичанин.
Directly, [Сейчас (англ., перевод Л. Н. Толстого)] - ответил Нехлюдов и спросил ее о Крыльцове.
Она оправилась от волнения и спокойно рассказала, что знала: Крыльцов очень ослабел дорогой <...>

And here's the quote from the translation by Louise Maude:

“What a good woman you are,” he said.
“I good?” she said through her tears, and a pathetic smile lit up her face.
“Are you ready?” the Englishman asked.
“Directly,” replied Nekhludoff and asked her about Kryltzoff.
She got over her emotion and quietly told him all she knew. Kryltzoff was very weak and <...>

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    About 1250 results for will be ready directly show that directly can be used to mean very soon as well as immediately. But in Monopoly, for example, the Go directly to Jail card doesn't mean go after a short delay - it means go to jail right now, with no delay. – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '16 at 14:34
  • In the US, "directly" meaning "in just a moment" is used more often in the South than elsewhere. This link doesn't show that regionalism, but it shows that the meaning in just a moment is well attested. dare.wisc.edu/survey-results/1965-1970/time/a13 – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 7 '16 at 16:58
  • It is also used many times in Wodehouse's work with the meaning "right after". For example, in JEEVES AND THE UNBIDDEN GUEST you can find: "Directly I managed to tear myself away that night and get home, I made up my mind that this was jolly well the last time that I went about with Motty." – laugh Apr 7 '16 at 17:33
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Two dictionaries suggest that you indeed can use "directly" in such sense. Use 3 in this one. Use 2. b in this one EDIT: To respond to your additional question that you added: I don't often notice people using directly with that meaning, in fact I've just found out that is a possible way to use it. So, I would guess that it's not very often used by native speakers, though I don't really know an efficient way to check that.

  • Thank you for your answer! Same for me and when I asked two brits they both told that never heared of such usage of the word. 'without delay' from merriam-webster is not quite the same, considering the example they supply: "the second game followed directly after the first". I mean if it is 'without delay' does it give us permission to use it instead of 'shortly'? You can reply with 'shortly', but you can't reply with 'soon'. You would need to add 'I'll be ready...' at least – Dany Apr 7 '16 at 13:31
  • @Dany I'm not aware of a rule that says you cannot reply using only one word. If the meaning checks out and can be understood as such, why not? I've never heard it used like that, though. – userr2684291 Apr 7 '16 at 13:56
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As a native American English speaker, I never use "directly" that way and never hear anyone else use it like that in real life. It sounds old-fashioned or British.

Not sure what modern British usage might be.

  • It sounds old-fashioned or British. Is British necessarily bad? – zondo Apr 7 '16 at 19:55
  • @zondo, no, not at all. All I'm saying is that in the USA, it would sound a little unusual, not typical American usage. – Chad Apr 7 '16 at 22:37
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The American English speakers I know don't use directly, they use words that do not have ambiguity, such as right away and shortly. I see nine uses of directly in the Project Gutenberg e-text of the novel, and it is not immediately obvious to tell which meaning is intended in each case. Probably immediately since this is Tolstoy's usage here. (A more American-friendly translator might use different words.) But it might be interesting for you to find out the Russian word used for these occasions for which Tolstoy does not use an English word.

The use of directly on the Monopoly game card Go directly to jail. Do not pass go... can mean Go in "a direct line, way, or manner; straight" (across the board) to jail. Do not pass GO. But this linear usage of directly is also not that common among American English speakers when the word is used by itself as a direction. Once a speaker of South African English was in a car with me and was telling me whether to go straight, left or right, and he kept saying "directly" and I had no idea what he meant. I didn't know whether he meant go straight or go [directly] right or [directly] left. We Yanks finally figured out he meant straight. We do say Directly across the street.

Another word that causes problems is presently, which can mean soon, shortly, or (in Shakespeare) immediately. So many Americans who read Shakespeare have a wrong notion of that word.

So, in sum, in my experience, both directly and presently are BrE words that still have some ambiguity for me. Like I said, we Americans do use directly in phrases to mean straight, as in There's a park directly across the street from our house.

  • Directly doesn't necessarily mean straight in the sense of a straight line, it often means without deviating. E.g., if you drive directly from home to work that doesn't imply that you drive in a straight line - the route may have a lot of corners, but directly means that you take the shortest practical route and don't do other errands along the way. Using presently to mean soon is reasonably common in Australian English. Presently meaning immediately is an archaic usage, but it does mean at present. – nnnnnn Jun 7 '16 at 4:36
  • @nnnnnnnnnnnn Yup, I know that. As in the definition: Drive in a direct manner. Anyway, in Monopoly, Go "the shortest practical route and don't do other errands along the way" is how Go directly to jail can be read, rather than Go immediately to jail. The uses can be simultaneous, of course. – Alan Carmack Jun 7 '16 at 4:44

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