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Grammar: frequency adverbs

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

A discussion about frequency adverbs and word order.

I am teaching a group of adults who are nominally 'false' beginners, but in reality are all of different learning levels. I am writing because I came unstuck in a lesson with them the other day and I can't find the answer to the dilemma I encountered. We had been learning adverbs of frequency. An exercise I gave the group was to insert an adverb into sentences. In one such sentence, which read something like 'I don't go to the cinema' the adverb to be inserted was 'very often'. The students had earlier learnt that adverbs of frequency precede the substantive verb (i.e. after any auxiliary), unless the verb is 'to be'. Following this 'rule' the answer to the exercise should have been 'I don't very often go to the cinema' but that sounds wrong to me, and I felt 'I don't go to the cinema very often' was more acceptable. I cannot say why and wonder if my feelings are misleading me?

Elizabeth Bean

Elizabeth, this is a good example of tendencies being confused with rules, and of how rules are less reliable than intuitions. Word order in general, and adverb placement in particular, are very slippery areas, and resist hard-and-fast rules. So much depends on:

1. the surrounding context

2. the nuance of meaning the speaker/writer wants to convey

Compare, for example, these two cases:

1. Very often I don’t leave a tip…

2. I don’t very often leave a tip…

Which one is more likely to be followed by:

a… but when I do, I leave a lot ..?

and which is more likely to be followed by:

b… because the service is so terrible ..?

My feeling is 1 – b, and 2 – a. But it's only a tendency, not a rule.

This doesn't answer your question, though, so I went to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (LGSWE) to see why it was I tended to agree with you – that, although possible, I don't very often go to the cinema sounded less common.

This is what it said:

Essentially there are three places an adverb or adverbial can go in a sentence: at the beginning (initial position), in the middle somewhere (medial), and at the end (final). Medial position is typically (although not always) between the subject and the verb, or after the first auxiliary or verb to be: I never eat meat. I have always eaten vegetables. I am very often hungry. While circumstance adverbials (of which time and frequency adverbials are a subset) tend to cluster in final position, this is only a tendency, not a rule.

Factors that determine the preferred position of an adverbial include:

meaning

grammatical structure

length

For example, if the adverbial is a single-word adverb (such as occasionally, always, never) it is more likely to be found in medial position. If on the other hand, it is a noun phrase (like every week, all the time) it is almost always in final position. Ditto for preposition phrases: in the morning, on Fridays. The LGSWE notes that time adverbials occurring in medial positions … tend to be short structures, usually single adverbs.

I don't often go to the cinema.

You're less likely to find:

I don't very often go to the cinema.

I also suspect that the negative context may have something to do with it. This was confirmed by a random selection of concordance lines from the Collins Cobuild concordancer, which threw up eight clear examples of very often in the final position of the clause, NONE of which were negative, and seven in final position, of which six were negative:

Medial: positive

Parents are very often ambivalent about a pregnancy ...

A biological treatment is very often effective in reducing ...

One very often films out of sequence ...

Land in Africa is very often given away to various speculators ...

Officers were very often members of the landed gentry ...

Health insurance is very often one of the last items to be ...

Well in science it very often pays to take a slightly indirect ...

Final: positive

John is kept in town very often by serious cases ...

Final: negative

She doesn't write nature poems very often ...

She did not use the telephone very often because she was deaf ...

I don't see him very often ...

Here's something you don't see very often ...

Kind of thing doesn't happen very often ...

Chance to go to Europe doesn't come around very often ...

This would seem to suggest that the pattern negated verb (+ object) + very often is preferred, which suggests why you (and I) are more comfortable with I don’t go to the cinema very often.

Now there may be a good reason for this, and it may have something to do with the end-weight principle – a tendency to place 'weightier' information at the end of the clause, and, more relevant to this example, a tendency to balance key information by placing some of it at the beginning of the clause (in this case not) and some of it at the end (very often), avoiding the middle altogether. This is designed to make it easier for the listener/reader to process the information, since it is not all compacted into one part of the sentence.

But good reasons nor not, we are dealing with probabilities rather than certainties, and a grammar of probability is less satisfying to learners, unfortunately, than a grammar of certainties, since learners tend to assume that rules should be either-or, not both-and. Doubly unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that we can’t rely on massive exposure to sort it out for them either. Adverb placement was precisely the area that researchers of immersion English classrooms in Canada found highly resistant to exposure. These French-speaking students tended to stick with I like very much ice-cream, despite having heard very often the correct form. Despite having heard the correct form very often, I mean. Or do I?

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Hi Helen,

    Thanks for the feedback. Glad you found this helpful. Best of luck with your class. Do let us know how it goes.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Thank you for this. I am about to go through adverbs of frequency with my class, so it is good to be aware of the pitfalls, particularly as I have a mixture of pre-intermediate and much higher students. The higher level students tend to like to have black and white answers, which from your article I can see is not always possible! I tell them what I think is more common.

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