To Be Or Not To Be, That Is The Question – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you seen the phrase ‘to be or not to be?’ or the longer version ‘to be or not to be, that is the question?’ on the internet or in a story somewhere and would like to know what the term means? The term is often used as a means of pointing out the irony of something, although it can have other meanings. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The phrase ‘to be or not to be, that is the question?’ is often used as a phrase that polints out humor, irony or a comparison between two things that establishes its presence in a conversation.

The term can be acceptable when it is shortened to the phrase ‘to be or not to be?’ instead, and the rest of the phrase is assumed as known.

The simple phrase can refer to many things although it is very commonly used to respond to something with humor and sarcasm, or to turn something that someone has just said or asked back at the recipient: e.g. as no actual answer.

While there are many things that ‘to be or not to be’ could refer to, the context is usually made clear from the rest of the sentence or subject that is being discussed.

The other end of the phrase can also be used when referring to the entire expression, to say ‘that is the question!’ in response to something, while actually only averting the question or statement from the previous speaker in the conversation.

The phrase can also mean sarcastically that something is being considered as an option.

While this is rare and context-based use, the phrase can also be an explicit reference to its origin, which is attributed to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Example Usage

“I was going to choose between the red shirt and the blue shirt, when I thought: to be or not to be, that is the question.”

“I didn’t know what to put on the pizza, so I chose pineapple. To be or not to be?”

“Do you like pineapple on your pizza or not? He just wrote ‘to be or not to be’ and now I’m not sure what he would prefer.”

“To be or not to be, that is the question if you cannot decide between the different cookie dough flavors you can buy.”


The origin of the phrase and expression ‘to be or not to be’ is amongst the several hundred expressions that are credited to originate from the works of Shakespeare. The specific phrase comes from Hamlet, and is spoken by the eponymous character.

The phrase is likely to have spread into popular language from the 1800s, when Shakespeare’s work became known to a great deal of the world.

After the translation of Shakespeare’s work and its inclusion in schools as study material, the expression of Shakespeare would become even more known – including this one.

Sometimes the phrase is used as a pop culture reference, and very few people who put the phrase to use today say the expression to reference the play.

Phrases Similar to To Be Or Not To Be

  • Yes or No?

Phrases Opposite to Built Like a Brick Shithouse

  • N/a

What is the Correct Saying?

  • To be or not to be…
  • To be or not to be, that is the question?
  • That is the question!

Ways People May Say To Be Or Not To Be Incorrectly

The phrase ‘to be or not to be’ can be used or understood in the wrong way if someone does not understand the reference that the phrase makes.

Incorrect use is common, though usually related to a lack of understanding about the term’s meaning instead of the grammatical way in which the term appears.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase To Be Or Not To Be

The right way to use the phrase ‘to be or not to be’ is to use it as a way to fire back at a first speaker, or to avoid answering their question (or commenting on their statement).

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