Now or immediately?

Wilson Fowlie has brought to my attention the cartoon How to Express Yourself Forcefully at basicinstructions.net. I have no quibble with the main thrust of the cartoon – it’s rather well done, actually – but there’s one thing in it that has caught quite a few people out, if the comments are anything to go by: in the first panel, one of the characters says “You didn’t say do it now. You said do it immediately. There’s a big difference.”

“Oh no!” think various readers. “Another subtle distinction in English that I never learned and that now threatens to make me look like an idiot! Uh… what’s the difference?” Well, I’ll tell you.

Immediately means “without any intervening time or action” – if I say “he closed the book and immediately poured himself a drink,” that means that nothing else happened between the conclusion of the act of closing the book and the initiation of the act of pouring a drink (an act which, macroscopically, may include getting up, getting a glass, etc. – this is a sort of verbal metonymy for economy).

And if I say “Do it immediately,” I mean “let there be no intervening time or action between the conclusion of my uttering this command and the initiation of your performing the commanded act.” The fudge factors would be what you consider the conclusion of the utterance and the initiation of the act – the character in the strip may have been banking on more dialogue taking place before the conclusion of the dialogue that involves the command.

Now, on the other hand, means “at this very moment.” If I say “there’s a guy dancing down my street right now,” that means he’s doing it at the moment I’m saying it. If I say “Do it now,” it’s obviously impossible for the person to be doing it at the very instant I’m telling him to, so the definition of now in such a case is a broader one encompassing enough time for the act to be initiated. It means, in other words, “do it as soon as I have told you to do it.” Which means “let there be no intervening time or action between the conclusion of my uttering this command and the initiation of your performing the commanded act.”

Just to make it a little clearer, let’s turn to the Oxford English Dictionary. Therein, we see immediately defined as (among other things) “Without any delay or lapse of time; instantly, directly, straightway; at once.” And we see now defined as “In the time directly following on the present moment; immediately, at once.”

In other words, denotatively, there is no difference in this context.

(If I were to say “the concert is starting now,” that could mean concurrent with the act of utterance, which “the concert is starting immediately” could not. But in commands, this is not possible.)

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no difference at all between Do it now and Do it immediately. One of the words has five times as many syllables and 4.5 times as many phonemes as the other. Some people may find now sterner, or more condescending; it certainly is curter. I would say the difference, in the main, is like the difference between making a sweeping hand gesture (immediately) and stabbing the air with your finger (now). And immediately is more future-oriented, now more present-oriented.

But that’s still not a big difference. And in the context of someone telling you to do something immediately, that means “hop to it” as surely as their telling you to do it now does.

2 responses to “Now or immediately?

  1. Thanks!

    Also, if you haven’t already (or started to), you may be amused going through the archives of Basic Instructions. Many of the early ones are especially funny.

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