These are both phrases I see from time to time. I don’t know that I would say I see them time after time. But they are familiar to me, and have associations for me.
They’re also highly idiomatic. I hadn’t really thought much about how anomalous they are in form until I saw where a non-native speaker of English had written from a time to a time.
Well, why not? What are we saying, in fact? From this time to that time? Not exactly, nor from time A to time B, nor some recursive operation on one axis of a space-time graph. Somehow the times are implicitly specified and iterative. If something changes from day to day, that means it’s different every day. We can do this with place too: from place to place. We can say we went from house to house. Indeed, if I say I was at the cat show and I went from cat to cat petting them, you have a clear picture of me stopping at every next cat I came to and petting it.
So is it that from time to time gives us a picture of something occurring at every next time? Rather not. It is much more desultory. It’s not like going from town to town, from day to day; it’s just here and there, now and again. It’s relaxed, insouciant. Occasional. Not at all from moment to moment. Just, you know, from time to time.
Time after time, on the other hand, is incessant. It matches other uses of the same form: cat after cat, he petted them obsessively; beer after beer, he shotgunned it and stuck the can in a chicken for roasting (and chicken after chicken, he stuffed a beer can up its backside). Day after day, week after week, month after month: it’s a clear picture of an incessant procession. It’s atypical because it specifies the nouns involved without a definite or indefinite article or possessive. But at least it’s consistent.
Except that time is not something that occurs at regular intervals. It’s a continuum. We’re using time here to refer to moments – just as we do in this time and one chicken at a time and so on – and we’re implying a procession of regular intervals. We use time similarly in from time to time, except it doesn’t have the tight insistence that other things in that phrase form have.
Well, it doesn’t anymore. Although the ‘now and again; occasionally’ sense has been with it since its first appearance (in the 1400s), from time to time was used for a time (note that time in for a time refers to an extent of time, not an instance) to mean ‘continuously’. Which may explain the phrase I associate with it.
I’ve known from time to time since I was young, but since I’ve been regularly exposed to Anglican liturgies, I have from time to time encountered it, in the General Confession from the Book of Alternative Services (an updated version of the Book of Common Prayer): “We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word and deed, Against thy divine majesty.” We can leave aside my association of manifold with auto mechanics. It’s that from time to time that seems so out of keeping to my modern ears. It’s as though someone said to me, “Have you committed any sins or wickedness?” and I said, with a shrug, “Eh, from time to time.” You know, a sin here, a wickedness there. But when it’s in this self-denunciatory common enunciation, we learn that from time to time can be sterner.
Still, wouldn’t it be better if it were “which we, time after time, most grievously have committed”? I think that puts it across much better to the modern ear. There is an impatient insistence to it. It’s also fresher. Although time after time was in use as early as from time to time, it doesn’t show up in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, as from time to time does (and, incidentally, mostly has our modern meaning in those contexts).
I’ll tell you where it does show up, though, and what is my first association with it. It’s an instance where it’s insistent but not impatient. It’s this song, that I return to on occasion and yet with a guarantee that I will return to it again – in other words, I return to it from time to time, but I will always return to it, time after time: