Why and when did the expression "now and then" come to mean sometimes or occasionally? Logically it means just the opposite! "Now" and "then" means "presently" and "in the past", the future will soon become the "now" and then the "then." So if something happens "now and then" it happens all the time, and will continue to do so.

When did we start using it to mean "occasionally"?

  • My bad, I should have used the full version of the expression. It d
    – Jack barak
    Jan 8, 2016 at 23:34
  • My bad I really should have given the full expression. "Every now and then". Therefore logically every now would be all present periods regardless of length. Every now would then become every then, in other words the past, present and future as every future moment will become a present moment and then the past. I think a comment from Doctor Who might be useful.
    – Jack barak
    Jan 8, 2016 at 23:57
  • I edited my response to address your new concern.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 9, 2016 at 0:02

1 Answer 1


"Now and then" does not "logically" mean "all the time." It might, however, be ambiguous between a reading on which it means "all the time" (as it seems to mean in the phrase "both now and then") and the reading on which it means "occasionally".

"Now" and "then" can be used deictically to refer to momentary instants (as in "Now it's midnight"), longer periods (as in "Now it's August"), or much longer periods (as in "Now it's the 21st century").

Used to refer to instants, "now and then" can thus communicate something's happening at sporadic moments, or occasionally. I'm not sure about the exact history of this use though.

EDIT: "Every now and then" is an interesting variant. But it doesn't raise any special problems.

Just consider that often when we use "every N" (where N is a noun) we don't actually mean to be speaking about every N in existence. When I announce to a class that "Every student is here," I don't mean every student in existence, I just mean "Every student enrolled in this class is here." Quantifiers like "every" are said to be contextually restricted.

A similarly restricted use of "every" would explain the meaning of "every now and then" as denoting sporadic moments.

  • 4
    There analogous spatial idiom being "here and there", and which points up the absurdity of interpreting "now and then" to mean "all the time": there is a point, you can't say there and mean "everywhere".
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 8, 2016 at 22:53
  • Boats fill Bristol harbour and have done so for centuries. Both now and then the huge tidal range of the Bristol channel has restricted when they can exit the harbour and head out to sea.
    – Dan
    Jan 9, 2016 at 0:20
  • @Dan, I assume you're presenting this as a counter-example to one of my claims? Let me just say that I wasn't giving a full explication of ALL the uses of "now and then," only pointing out that on one use it can be used to denote or communicate about sporadic instances.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 9, 2016 at 0:29
  • I guess I was wanting to illustrate that the OP has a reasonable question with a logical basis.
    – Dan
    Jan 9, 2016 at 0:32
  • 1
    @Dan, I figured. I edited my post to make it clear that I wasn't making an absolute statement about "now and then" and that it might, in fact, be ambiguous between the way you used it in your example and the way suggested by the OP.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 9, 2016 at 0:46

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