Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

A person, supposedly a native speaker of English, assured me that

I would say "often" means roughly 50-60% of the time, whereas "more often than not" means 75-95% of the time, and is closer in meaning to "almost always."

Is that really so? It doesn't seem logical (but then, language rarely is). I do not trust the dictionary I usually use, and I'd like to get an opinion of native speakers who at the same time studied English in a university.

If it is indeed the case, is it the same with "more rarely than not" and "rarely"? How productive is this model exactly?

share|improve this question
If a thing happens more often that not, it means in all the contexts where it might happen, it actually happens more than it doesn't happen. This I think is General Reference, but whoever thought they could teach you how to convert often to percentage values is an idiot. –  FumbleFingers Jul 29 '14 at 22:58
I would say that "more often that not" is similar to saying "frequently", almost always leaves a narrow/tiny margin. Compare I almost always floss my teeth before going to bed and More often than not I floss my teeth before bedtime. The second phrase implies that I skip a few nights, the first insinuates I very rarely forget. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 30 '14 at 7:06
@FumbleFingers: I'm the "idiot!" Hahaha. Actually, she left off the first three words in quoting me, which are the most important: I WOULD SAY = in other words the idea was to give her an inkling of how I see "often" in comparison to "more often than not" in my own speech/use. I happen to use this expression quite a bit - somewhere between "often" and "almost always." The OP unfortunately, was trying to convince me that "often" is a better alternative to "more often than not" and I don't agree. To me, they refer to two different degrees of frequency, which to a NATIVE would make perfect sense. –  CocoPop Jul 30 '14 at 23:34
@Olga: If this expression is so controversial and illogical, why does it exist? Why are there 4,840,000 hits on Google? I can assure you that I am every bit a native speaker of English, and moreover a professional translator and editor with over 30 years experience. You don't need to recruit eggheads who studied English in a university to settle such a simple doubt - anyone with a native proficiency and two IQ points could tell you that "often" and "more often than not" are two different concepts. I wonder if you're able to intuit the difference, or do you just see O_F_T_E_N? –  CocoPop Jul 30 '14 at 23:43
@CocoPop: I see you've amended that first line in your answer, so I've cancelled my downvote. Ronan's point about 50.000001% or 50.0000000000000001% notwithstanding, your answer doesn't meaningfully reference "percentage likelihood" (it's OP's 50-60% and 75-95% that make me roll my eyes! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '14 at 14:21

4 Answers 4

It happens more often that it does not happen.

50.000001% and over

There is no official percentage. It just happens more often than it does not happen. So at least 50.000001%.

As pointed out in the comments, often can be any percentage that implies somewhat frequently - and depends on the circumstances.

share|improve this answer
Unless of course it's 50.0000000000000001%? –  Ronan Jul 29 '14 at 21:10
You're right about "more often than not", but I don't think it's at all helpful to define a bare "often" in terms of absolute percentages. Its meaning depends on context and expectation. A goalkeeper who saves penalties 40% of the time might be said to save them "often", because the expectation is considerably less than that. –  Rupe Jul 29 '14 at 21:26
I had used percentages as Olga had, but you're 100% right with your example. –  Ronan Jul 29 '14 at 21:59
And here I used to think the phrase meant "more often than not at all". XP –  AlbeyAmakiir Jul 30 '14 at 5:18
@Ronan: I'd argue that often can be almost any percentage. Here we say "it often rains in December" though strictly speaking it only rains once a day, every day and on average for 20 minutes which is technically less than 1.4% of the time. –  slebetman Jul 30 '14 at 7:36

The literal meaning of more often than not is in more than 50% of cases. As this is so obvious and no other precise meaning is well known, you can expect that at least some people will use it in precisely this sense. I guess the need for more often than not arose because almost all other expressions that describe a frequency or probability are relative to some normal or expected frequency or probability and are not related to any fixed percentage.

On the other hand, I am sure a lot of people use the expression figuratively as a longer, more impressive alternative to often, meaning a somewhat higher probability than often.

I won't try to interpret this, but in the Google corpus, much more often than not - which I think most people will understand literally - accounts for (not much) less than 1% of uses of more often than not.

share|improve this answer
More often than not people will use it to indicate an occurrence of more than 50%! –  Levit Jul 30 '14 at 6:06

The "more often than not" locution is useful for the simple reason it's a "short and dirty" way of describing an aspect of reality without having to resort to cold, hard statistics.

Now if a colleague in a math-driven, statistic-oriented work environment asks you how often Joe Public votes in local elections, she expects an accurate statistic from you, and not a "more often than not" answer. In "normal" conversation with your neighbor, however, he might, out of curiosity, ask you

How often do you wind up washing your car on Saturday?

In answering your neighbor's question you are permitted to say,

More often than not.

Very rarely would a neighbor say in return,

I don't agree with you. I've been keeping track of what day of the week you wash your car for the past two-and-a-half years. In point of fact you have washed your car on Saturday only 45 percent of the time, on Sunday 48 percent of the time, and on various other days of the week the remaining seven percent of the time. Clearly, you do not wash your car on Saturday more often than not. What a liar you are!

Only severely neurotic, anal-retentive types are going to bust your chops about not being precise about trivial things such as what day of the week you wash your car. Normal people don't ask you about the statistical probability that you'll be washing your car on Saturday this week. If you tell them, "More often than not, I wash my car on Saturday, so chances are good I'll be doing so this Saturday," then you'll likely believe them.

As an interesting aside, in American jurisprudence the burden of proof in a criminal case is different from the burden of proof in a civil case. Before the jury deliberates the fate of the accused in a murder trial, for example, they are instructed by the judge to find the defendant guilty only if the evidence proves the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The judge does not, I assure you, say to the jury,

If your level of doubt is between one percent and 11 percent, then your verdict should be "guilty," but if your level of doubt is 12 percent or higher, then your verdict should be "not guilty."

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" cannot be decided on a sliding scale. A reasonable doubt is just that: reasonable, and not mathematically precise. An unreasonable doubt in a fairly clear cut murder trial, for example, would be if a juror insists that even though there were several witnesses who swore under oath they saw the defendant take aim at the victim and shoot him six times in the chest from a distance of less than 10 feet, this juror feels strongly that the real shooter, an expert marksman, was perched on the roof of an 80-story building, and he's the one who killed the victim, not the defendant! This, in spite of there not being one single piece of evidence that there was a shooter other than the defendant. Now that's unreasonable.

On the other hand, in a civil trial the burden of proof is quite different. In order for a judge or jury to find a defendant guilty, that guilt must be proved by a preponderance of evidence. Despite the inappropriateness of using statistics, even in such an important and formal setting as a civil trial, judges have been known to say,

The preponderance of evidence for either guilt or innocence can be as little as 51 percent to 49 percent in favor of one or the other. As long as you find the evidence is more in favor of guilt than innocence, then you have to find the defendant guilty. If on the other hand, as long as you find the evidence is more in favor of innocence than guilt, then you have to find the defendant innocent.

We can forgive the judge, I suppose, for giving the impression that two percent more (or less) constitutes a preponderance of evidence toward guilt or innocence. In a sense, the judge's attaching a number to evidence is unwise since jurors essentially weigh evidence, not on a literal scale but on a mental scale with which, using their own criteria for attaching weight to evidence, they attempt to determine guilt or innocence.

As a rhetorician, I must insist that in both a criminal trial and a civil trial, the role of persuasion is--or at least can be--equally important. In the hands of a bright and persuasive lawyer, if a crucial piece of evidence or a line of argument is packaged in such a way that it becomes compelling, moving, and yes, persuasive, that evidence can tip the balance in favor of guilt or innocence.

In other words, the packaging of proof can sometimes have an inordinately large effect on how evidence is processed by a group of supposedly neutral and fact-finding jurors. Statistics are rarely by themselves persuasive. By using a "more often than not" locution at the right time and in the right way can, more often than not, prove to be more powerful than cold and bare statistics.

share|improve this answer

OK, so I read this with a smirk. :)

Let's start from "not". Obviously, that means never, so 0 (zero). Ergo, anything more than 0 is valid.

So more often than not means one or more times, in my book as a programmer. :)

share|improve this answer
Interesting interpretation, but much more often than not, more often than not is used in such a way that not is short for the negated condition. The Google corpus doesn't have a single instance of "more often than not at all", the obvious way of expressing your interpretation unambiguously. –  Hans Adler Jul 30 '14 at 2:49
My response was meant somewhat as a tongue-in-cheek way of looking at it. However, since the phrase is so ambiguous, it might be interpreted as a semantically null statement that is just used to bamboozle the listener. Let's assume for moment that more often than not means anything over 50% of the time, the fact that the phrase is used in such ambiguous terms is a way to bolster your opinion with the what appears to be the backing of statistics on your side. Would be interesting to see someone cite official statistics using the phrase "more often than not", instead of "83% of all men ...". –  mike.bronner Jul 30 '14 at 2:56

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.