As an instance, in "On Land and Sea With Caesar" by R. F. Wells it is written:

"Go to sleep again. You'll feel better by and by and then I'll tell you all about it." " No, tell me now," insisted Titus. " I feel tired, awfully tired and weak, but I can listen to such news as that." " What was the last you remember about the battle? " inquired Julius.

After reading some dictionaries, I observed that "by and by" means:

  • After a while; soon. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.)

  • presently or eventually (Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged.)

But, I'm not able to precisely understand whether, in contexts like above, "by and by" is used to indicate (1) an event that will happen soon, a great encouragement full of optimism, or (2) an event that will happen in a distant future, eventually.

As far as I understand, in the case (2) one can still read an encouragement, but with an involved meaning of resignation.

So, in what sense is "by and by" commonly or properly used, (1) or (2)? Please, explain in reference to contexts like the afore-quoted?

  • The meaning really is between the writer and the reader in this case. One can come to the conclusion that Julius is sick or injured and that Titus is comforting him and trying to get him to rest some more. I don't see where you're getting "resignation". It's simply, "rest and you'll feel better soon - then I'll tell you all about it." Jul 25, 2013 at 13:31
  • 1
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about interpreting literature. Jul 25, 2013 at 14:52
  • @Kristina, probably "resignation" is not the better word expressing the emotion to which I'm referring to. MW says "the quality or state of being resigned", but I cannot precisely say if that definition describes that emotion. Using that word, I wanted to mean the state in which one must accept a situation/fact they don't want accept. I.e., suppose you have a cancer, how do you describe your situation if you don't have other alternatives other than the death?
    – user19148
    Jul 25, 2013 at 17:22
  • @KristinaLopez I would argue that, indirectly, it asking about the meaning & usage of "by and by" - and have answered it accordingly.
    – TrevorD
    Jul 25, 2013 at 18:50
  • @TrevorD, I upvoted your answer, mostly for the "manufacturing a difference" observation, but I based my off-topic opinion on the OP's last part of the question, "Please, explain in reference to contexts like the afore-quoted?" which though the expression "by and by" is clearly defined in his question, seems to be pointing back to the example from literature which is off-topic. But I could be wrong - weirder things have happened! :-) Jul 25, 2013 at 20:04

4 Answers 4


I would be inclined to say that "by-and-by" would be more commonly used in your second case. As a reference, consider the hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By."

One of the composers, Sanford Bennett, described the creation of the hymn in his autobiography:

"Mr. Webster, like many musicians, was of an exceedingly nervous and sensitive nature, and subject to periods of depression, in which he looked upon the dark side of all things in life. I had learned his peculiarities so well that on meeting him I could tell at a glance if he was melancholy, and had found that I could rouse him up by giving him a new song to work on. He came into my place of business [in Elkhorn, Wisconsin], walked down to the stove, and turned his back on me without speaking. I was at my desk. Turning to him, I said, “Webster, what is the matter now?” “It’s no matter,” he replied, “it will be all right by and by.” The idea of the hymn came me like a flash of sunlight, and I replied, “The Sweet By and By! Why would not that make a good hymn?” “Maybe it would,” he said indifferently. Turning to my desk I penned the words of the hymn as fast as I could write. I handed the words to Webster. As he read his eyes kindled, and stepping to the desk he began writing the notes. Taking his violin, he played the melody and then jotted down the notes of the chorus. It was not over thirty minutes from the time I took my pen to write the words before two friends with Webster and myself were singing the hymn."

The setting of the anecdote supports your theory that there is a sense of optimism encapsulated by melancholy. Mr. Webster states that "it will be all right by and by" while in a period of depression. There exists an involved sense of resignation, but the hope of the situation is realized in the chorus of the hymn:

"In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore."

The chorus again supports the definition that "by-and-by" implies a distant future as the Christian hymn is referring to communing with God in the afterlife.


Chambers Dictionary has:

by and by rather literary or old use
after a short time; at some time in the not-too-distant future.

I wouldn't say that there is really any significant difference between your two definitions:

(1) after a while; soon;
(2) presently

are all different ways of saying:

after a short time or in the near future.

The only item in any of the three definitions that I might query is eventually, which tends to imply a somewhat longer period of time. But, there again, your Collins definition has:

presently or eventually

So I read that as meaning that, in some cases it means presently, and in other cases it means eventually.


  • All of the definitions effectively mean "in a short (or maybe slightly longer) period of time".
  • I don't think there is any significant difference between the two definitions you've quoted. I think you're 'manufacturing' a difference that doesn't really exist.
  • In any case, the statement is meant to be encouraging that he will feel better in the near future, although he doesn't know exactly how soon.

It is certainly a phrase that is used with positive connotations, for example in the old hymn "In the sweet by and by / we shall meet on that beautiful shore", where it refers to the Christian hope of heaven. But whether the person expects that to be soon or not depends on context, and whether the person is actually optimistic or resigned depends on the person ("Oh well, I suppose it will all get sorted out by and by..."). Generally, I'd expect it to mean later rather than sooner, though.


I always understood that phrase to be some kind of abbreviation(?) that means "some time soon"

In your case I would read it like "You'll feel better by the next morning and even better by the next one [...]", aiming towards the time where Titus would be well enough to hear "all of it".

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