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Is it Correct to Say “Now and Then”?

“Now and then” seems somewhat contradictory for those unfamiliar with English. After all, how can something happen now and simultaneously in the future? How can this make sense? Is it correct?

It is correct to say “now and then.” It is an adverb phrase we use idiomatically to describe the time frame of a verb. It is an adverb of frequency synonymous with “not always,” “not regularly,” “infrequently,” or “seldom.” You may use it informally to say: “I run now and then.”

This article will explain what “now and then” means, how to use it properly, and in which contexts it is appropriate.

What Does “Now and Then” Mean?

The adverb phrase “now and then” describes the time frame of an action or activity that did not, or does not, or will not happen often or regularly. We use “now and then” idiomatically to describe something that happens only some of the time, seldom or occasionally. 

When we use it properly in the right context, “now and then” is an adverb phrase. Adverb phrases are two or more words that act as a single unit to modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Adverb phrases, like adverbs, answer how, when, where, how much, to what extent, or why something happened (source).

“Now and then” is an adverb of frequency describing how often something happens. Taken literally, though, “now and then” does not make sense. How can something take place both now and later?

This is why we also label “now and then” an idiom; its literal meaning is nonsense, but it has a figurative meaning. By saying that something takes place “now and then,” you are saying it happens infrequently – not often enough to define more specific times.

Moreover, “now and then” applies to something that takes place in its entirety: past, present, or future (source). We use it the most in general statements. “James runs for exercise now and then” is equivalent to saying, “James doesn’t run for exercise regularly.”

How Do You Use “Now and Then”?

One uses “now and then” adverbially to express something that did not, does not, or will not happen regularly in the past. You may also use it to describe something that happened, happens, or will occasionally be happening, from time to time, irregularly, or rarely.

We often use “now and then” to describe another adverb and a verb. In the following sentence, we modify the phrasal verb “gets up” (red) with the adverb of time “early” (light blue).

  • My brother is quite lazy and only gets up early now and then. 

If we just left it at that, though, the sentence would not make sense. So, we add the adverb phrase “now and then” (light blue) to quantify how often (irregularly) my brother gets up early.

  • My brother is quite lazy and only gets up early now and then

In the next sentence, “now and then” describes the verb “succeed” as rarely.

  • I now and then succeed in running the 100 m race in under nine seconds.

We can also use “now and then” to quantify a time frame we have already given. In the following sentence, “now and then” seeks to balance “not very often.” Both adverb phrases modify the verb “go.”

  • I do not go to the movies very often, only now and then.

Due to it being an adverb phrase of frequency, “now and then” cannot modify an adjective. However, it is a helpful phrase to describe unspecific, infrequent actions, activities, and times.

When Can You Use “Now and Then”?

You can use “now and then” when you want to say that an action did not happen, does not happen, or will not happen regularly or frequently.

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“Now and then” is a handy adverb phrase we use idiomatically to draw attention to the irregularity of something or to show how infrequently something happens.

  • Last year, rain occurred regularly, but we only had rain now and then this year.

We can also use it to explain how infrequently something happens to one person compared to another.

  • My wife constantly has headaches, but I only have them now and then.

Interestingly, the time itself is unimportant, so we use “now and then” to reflect this. The action does happen, just not regularly enough to be notable, reliable, or habitual.

  • Our in-laws visit us frequently, but we visit them only now and then.

You can also use “now and then” to imply that you have some experience in something but not enough to be an expert. Consider the situation below:

  • Interviewer: “Are you familiar with tech copywriting?”
  • Interviewee: “I write copy for phone applications now and then.”

The interviewee says he has done some copywriting for phone applications here and there in the past because it answers the interviewer’s question while also suggesting that he can learn more.

In What Context Can You Use “Now and Then”? 

You can use “now and then” when you want to talk about an event, action, or activity that only takes place from time to time. Since it is an idiom, you should avoid using “now and then” in formal contexts.

As an idiom, “now and then” is appropriate for casual conversation in informal contexts. You can use it when describing occasional hobbies to family and friends or balancing the timeframe of general statements in conversation.

  • Due to time constraints, I build model airplanes only now and then.
  • Lazy athletes don’t win often, but they may score now and then.

You can also use “now and then” to humbly answer a question about yourself. Perhaps you are a great skier but don’t want to draw much attention to it. If someone asks you about skiing, you may say something like the following:

  • Yeah; I like to go skiing now and then.

Answering with “now and then” signals that you have some experience in the topic, but you are not ready to discuss it now.

However, if you add more information after “now and then,” you will appear to be bragging about yourself. It is acceptable for someone else to bring up your skiing skills at this point, but you should not follow the above with detailed stories of your ski competitions.

Using “Now and Then” in a Full Sentence

As an adverb phrase, you can place “now and then” wherever an adverb can go grammatically. However, we typically place it at the end of a sentence because it quantifies everything we said in that sentence.

Though we can place “now and then” closer to the verb it modifies, we tend to place it at the end of the sentence.

  • I now and then visit the shops downtown.
  • I visit the shops downtown now and then.

The sentence’s meaning is not altered in either position, but you should be mindful of the sentence flow. It is much smoother to say “now and then” at the end of the sentence because it does not interrupt the main idea.

Regardless of where you choose to put “now and then,” ensure that your meaning is clear. “Now and then” should clearly modify the verb or adverb you are using it with.

When Not to Use “Now and Then”

You cannot use “now and then” to describe an activity that transcends time (happens outside of time). Also, you cannot break it down into “now” or “then” as it would lose its idiomatic meaning. Furthermore, avoid using “now and then” in semi-formal and formal speaking and writing.

One Instance in Time

“Now and then” cannot describe things that happen outside of time. It also cannot define something that happens only once in the past, present, or future.

  • The Big Bang happened now and then.
  • Their wedding is lovely now and then.
  • Their baby boy is due now and then.

None of the above sentences make sense because they use “now and then” to describe one point in time. To use “now and then” correctly, you must apply it to one activity, action, or event that happens more than once.

“Now” and “Then”

Breaking “now and then” apart in a sentence loses the meaning of the phrase.

  • The cantankerous boys were wild then, so the teacher will punish them now

In this statement, the words “now” and “then” are separated, so they act as single adverbs rather than together. Also, note that the sentence has two tenses – past and present. “Then” and “now” typically operate in different tenses.

PastthenI didn’t know about it then.
PresentnowI know now.
FuturethenI will know then.

Semi-formal and Formal Contexts

You should not use “now and then” in semi-formal or formal speaking or writing because it is an unspecific idiom.

These contexts often require precision in measuring time. For example, if you were to write your boss an email that says, “I’ll submit client reports now and then,” it would be entirely unhelpful for planning and organization. Moreover, your boss would feel unable to count on you for regular reports.

In formal contexts, “now and then” is far too imprecise. Imagine using “now and then” to describe timing in academic research, a legal court case, or the official launch of a new phone.

  • Our experiments showed that it reduced greenhouse gasses now and then.
  • The ex-boyfriend was caught trespassing now and then.
  • We will launch a new iPhone now and then over the next decade.

One cannot draw solid conclusions from any of these examples. Instead, the audience is likelier to feel that the team, speaker, or company is incompetent or making empty, inconclusive statements.

What Can You Use Instead of “Now and Then”?

There are several synonyms and synonymous phrases you can use instead of “now and then” to express the same idea (source).

The following list contains adverbs and adverb phrases we use to communicate “now and then.”

  • occasionally
  • intermittently
  • hardly
  • periodically
  • sporadically
  • infrequently
  • sometimes
  • irregularly
  • rarely
  • seldom

These all have a shade of difference from “now and then,” so ensure you know exactly what you need to say before using one of these terms. Notice the range of meaning captured in the following examples. The meaning is slightly altered when you replace the adverb with “now and then.”

  • The Metropolitan Police set up speed traps occasionally.
  • I seldom overeat.
  • Sometimes, she talks too much.
  • I rarely dream.
  • I sporadically get new ideas.
  • The signal comes through intermittently.
  • I can hardly afford a proper meal.
  • He periodically gives clothes away.

Phrases and Idioms

English has a rich reservoir of common phrases and idioms we use in daily conversation. These are tricky to learn, though, as many depend on context for meaning.

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A phrase is multiple words we use as one unit to communicate something. Phrases function as adverbs, adjectives, nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases. What precisely a phrase is doing in a sentence determines what kind of phrase it is.

“Now and then” functions as an adverb phrase. The following list contains other common adverb phrases in English (source).

  • at times
  • on occasion
  • [every] once in a while
  • [as] per usual

For more on how to use adverbs and adverb phrases correctly, read Anyday or Any Day: Which Is Correct? and Is It Correct to Say “As Always”?

The following adverb phrases are also idioms because they make no sense literally. Each one may stand in place of “now and then,” but again, ensure the phrase you choose captures your intended meaning accurately.

  • [every] now and then
  • [every] now and again
  • ever/every so often
  • from time to time
  • here and there
  • off and on
  • once and again
  • once in a blue moon

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As expected, all of these alternative phrases serve as adverbs that qualify the time frame of a verb (source).

Final Thoughts

It is legitimate to use “now and then” as an adverb phrase to quantify another adverb or verb. It communicates that something happens so infrequently or irregularly that it is almost not worth mentioning.

“Now and then” is an idiom we often use in informal communication. However, it is not suitable for semi-formal and formal contexts due to its imprecise nature. Perhaps now that you understand “now and then” better, you can use it every now and then!