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There are a couple of idioms whose meaning is from time to time or occasionally.

Every so often
(Every) once in a while
(Every) now and then/again

Every actually is a determiner (or, broadly speaking, an adjective) specifying a noun or noun phrase and means that everybody or everything of the referred group is addressed, as in every day, every man, or every student.

Obviously, every is also used when referring to a period or range of time, e.g., every thirty minutes or every week but, again, the time frame is given as a noun.

I was looking at the entry in Etymology Online, as well at Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries to get further information.

Etymology Online doesn't address the matter at all. While the dictionaries at least define these phrases and list a couple of examples, they do not give any clue to answer my questions: what part of role is every playing in these expressions (from both a grammatical and logical point of view) and where did this usage come from.

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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

You've answered your own question: every is a determiner which is used to introduce the frequency of the action. The difference is that some actions are rare or infrequent or the period isn't strictly known.

  • every day : once a day
  • every 5 minutes: repeats with a period of 5 minutes
  • every once in a while: repeats with an unspecified period (a while)
  • every so often: repeats with an unspecified period
  • every once in a blue moon: repeats on rare occasions when the moon is blue; the time period is the amount of time between blue moons. (This usage is never meant to be taken literally - it just means "rarely").

Just because "once in a while" is a phrase doesn't make it function like less of a noun than "day" or "5 minutes". In all of those cases, the word or phrase after "every" represents a time period.

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That sounds sooooo convincingly, you really don't give any chance not to accept this answer. –  Em1 Dec 20 '13 at 16:00
    
"Every once in a blue moon" doesn't really specify a period, it's generally used to state that it's a rare occasion, though it does happen repeatedly. It also doesn't have to happen when the moon is blue. –  Doc Dec 20 '13 at 16:26
    
@Doc Yeah, it isn't meant to be taken literally. But it is a time period. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 20 '13 at 16:32
    
I only point it out for the sake of those who might take it literally, not knowing any better. Better safe than sorry, yeah? –  Doc Dec 20 '13 at 16:35
    
@Doc fair enough. Edited to be clear. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 20 '13 at 16:37
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It is an expression that everyone knows and uses. It's just a convention now. It isn't necessarily correct or logical. In fact, it is redundant. You could remove Every from each example you listed and it would still make perfect sense: Often, Once in a while, Now and then/again.

It's the same things as people saying "general consensus". General is totally unnecessary because "general" is already inherent in the meaning of consensus. It's just the habit of people to use 5 words when 2 will do.

Wordiness is often mistaken for eloquence because "every so often" is smoother than just "often", but there is no difference in the meaning. And if you are trying to be succinct and concise then you might avoid those flourishes.

I don't know about it's origin though.

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Thanks for your reply. The idea of redundancy is true for two of them but I see a significant difference between "every so often" and "often". At least in this idiom "every" is very critical and cannot be omitted. But even if you can drop it, that does only partially answer the logical function but does not help me understand the grammatical function. –  Em1 Aug 2 '13 at 13:38
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Not sure I can answer your question directly, but I will suggest what to me the inclusion of every adds to the meaning of a sentence. Deecemobile's suggestion that the every so is not needed

"Often a woman is known to propose marriage to a man"

is not warranted, because the sentence needs the every so, especially if it draws attention to a rare phenomenon. I have a feeling that a proposal by a woman is rarer than a proposal by a man. Every so often communicates this. In other words, a woman doing the proposing is rare, but it does happen every once in a while.

The same could be said of once in a while, now and then, and now and again: all three need the every to communicate a certain thought. Saying

"Often, the tail has been known to wag the dog"

is simply not the same as saying

"Every so often the tail has been known to wag the dog."

Ditto every now and then:

"Every now and then a terrorist slips through the cracks"

is preferable to now and then, especially when the rarity of the occurrence is being stressed.

"Now and then a terrorist slips through the cracks,"

in my opinion makes the phenomenon seem more frequent than the every now and then sentence.

Is not there a similar difference between

"Now and again a terrorist falls through the cracks"

and

"Every now and again a terrorist falls through the cracks"?

In conclusion, every plays a role as a modifier, one that emphasizes rarity versus regularity. As a part of speech, I suppose you could say it functions either as an adverb that modifies the adverb now and then, or an adjective that modifies the adverb now and then. (Can an adjective modify an adverb? I'll leave that to the grammarians to determine!)

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An adjective does not modify an adverb but nouns only. To modify an adverb you need again an adverb. - You could make an image of your document and paste it. –  Em1 Aug 3 '13 at 22:59
    
@Em1: Thanks for the information, both grammatical and practical. I took about an hour to diagram a sentence the way I used to in school some 50+ years ago, but when I tried to copy/cut and paste, only the words wound up being pasted and not the lines that I had so patiently drawn in MS Word. Must have something to do with incompatibility, as I tried saving my diagram in a number of formats (e.g., Word 97-2003 doc, Web page, XPS doc, HTML, Word macro-enabled doc, Word macro-enabled template, and a few others), all to no avail. Is there a magic format for copy/cut and paste? –  rhetorician Aug 3 '13 at 23:28
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No, no magic available. You simply cannot paste a word format to html rendered text. Thus, pasting an image is the only way or to use html code and re-design it here. –  Em1 Aug 4 '13 at 8:32
    
@Em1: Thanks again for the information. With the help of a computer-savvy friend of mine, I was able to use a "snipping tool" to copy and paste a GIF image of my sentence diagram. I'm looking forward to using my new "toy" in future posts! –  rhetorician Aug 5 '13 at 0:29
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