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TWTS: Sometimes "meantime" just wants to be alone

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"In the meantime" is a good phrase to use when you're talking about the time between two events. But can you leave out "in the" and just say "meantime?"

A listener named Keisha Nelson tells us that that recently, she's both read and heard "meantime" used on its own.

"It seems to me that 'meantime' is a noun and needs 'in the.' I generally attribute these changes to laziness, but in listening to your program, I have discovered that this is not necessarily the case," Nelson says.

Nelson is right. Laziness isn't always necessarily the case, and "in the meantime" vs. "meantime" is no exception.

"Meantime" and "meanwhile" have very similar meanings and are often paired in usage guides. They both go back to the 14th century in English as nouns. As nouns, they're paired with "in the," as in "in the meantime" or "in the meanwhile."

By the 16th century, both words were being used as adverbs. That's when you see them on their own, as in "Meanwhile, I'll start cleaning the bathroom," or "Meantime, I'm going to take a nap." 

At this point, it's absolutely true that it's more common for "meantime" to appear as a noun with "in the" and "meanwhile" to appear by itself as an adverb. However, they're interchangeable, and using "meantime" as an adverb and "meantime" as a noun is okay too.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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