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TWTS: Maybe “by and by” will be more specific in the by and by

It can be helpful, as well as potentially confusing, to have vague expressions of time such as “by and by.”

The more we thought about this expression, the more trouble we had trying to think of how we even use “by and by.”

Sure, it shows up in poetry and music, but those contexts don’t exactly lend themselves to everyday use.

In its early history, “by and by” meant “one by one.” For example, you could talk about laying things by and by, that is, laying them next to each other. You could talk about things passing you by and by, or in succession. Early on “by and by” also could mean that something went on and on.

From there “by and by” comes to mean “immediately.” Here’s an example from 1690: “They say he will be here by and by.” In other words, he’ll be here immediately. However, that’s not how most of us would interpret “by and by” today.

Today we have a much broader sense of “by and by.” For many of us, it means “before long” or “soon” or even “eventually.” You might say something like, “We’ll know by and by if the house was worth the investment.” That is, we’ll know at some point, but it could be soon or later.

What does “by and by” mean to you?

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 All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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