I'm going to get my first tattoo in English. As English is not my first language, I would like to double-check if this sentence has any bad connotation. I did some research on internet and I didn't find any problem so far.

This is the sentence:

If not now, then when.


  • What's considered a bad connotation? I'd consider it somewhat needy (especially as a tattoo). – KillingTime Dec 12 '19 at 17:30
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    This is the title of a great song by Tracy Chapman. It is about seizing the moment to express your love for someone. I know of no negative connotations: youtube.com/watch?v=7hCoAF2G6wQ – Shoe Dec 12 '19 at 17:50
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    I don't see anything wrong with that phrase (other than that it's a little cliché), but as an aside, I don't think too many English speakers would attribute that saying to Hillel - both because most English speakers don't know who Hillel was (or might think he's the founder of a Jewish university student organization) and because it seems unlikely that Hillel was really the first person to say, "if not now, when?" – Juhasz Dec 12 '19 at 18:52
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    It's all positive. In Hebrew, the word 'then' is implied here, "If not now, when?" as Juhasz has it. – Yosef Baskin Dec 12 '19 at 19:06
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    I would omit then, but use a comma: If not now, when? – Colin Fine Dec 14 '19 at 18:55

The expression, "If not now, then when?" is most familiar to English speakers as a maxim attributed to the Jewish sage Hillel. An early rendering of Hillel's statement appears in "The Condition and Belief of the Jews at the Time of the Coming of Christ," in The Biblical Repository and Classical Review (July 1839):

Only some particular sayings, characteristic of each [Hillel and Shammai] have come down to us [from the era of Herod]. Thus, Hillel inculcated, as the fundamental principle of Judaism, this maxim: Love thy neighbor as thyself. On the necessity of the early prosecution of knowledge, with his accustomed brevity, he said: Unless I for myself, who will? If I only for myself, what do I become? If not now, then when?

The sense of the phrase in Hillel's use seems to be something like an exhortation not to put off the task of self-improvement.

A similar phrase appears in a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, "Of Repentance, and Fasting," preached before King James at Whitehall on February 26, 1723, in XCVI Sermons, second edition (1632):

And so would hee [St. John] have it, now : For, now (saith he) is the axe laid to the root : Now then, or not at all. Nay, not now : this is not a time ; we have appointed other businesse which we cannot put off. Well, one question more will make an end ; if not at this time, at what time? If not now, when? But then, this must be set downe, now before we stirre hence ; And so set downe, as if it be not now, it be as neere now, as may be, for feare ventura come not too soone, and take tree and all. This is sure ; the sooner, the better, because the more likely ; the later, the worse, because the less certaine.

Here the call to action appears to be to begin without delay to put one's spiritual life in order, because otherwise the end may come before one is ready for it.

In my view, whether understood as a religious message or as a purely secular one, "If not now, [then] when?" is an assertion about the urgency of prompt action. I do not see it as having intrinsically bad connotations. Rather, it expresses an orientation toward life that advocates action, change, and improvement. You could certainly choose worse sentiments to commit indelibly to your skin.

  • The original expression was transmitted through the Pirkei Avot; I don't know what time this was first translated into English. – microtherion Jan 10 '20 at 19:04

I don’t think most English speakers would readily associate the phrase with a bad connotation.

I think the sentence is more readable with a comma and a question mark:

If not now, then when?

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    Agree about the comma, I like it even better without the then: If not now, when? – Jim Dec 14 '19 at 22:57
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    Thanks for pointing out the missing question mark in the original! Without a question mark, it's not a question. – Mike Harris Jan 10 '20 at 20:44

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