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Am I failing to get a point here?

Collins English Dictionary:

as often as not: quite frequently

as likely as not: very probably

Considering the meanings of these phrases, to my eye, they come to have connotations not in line with their real meanings.

Before consulting my dictionary I envisaged that as often as not would most probably mean just about never rather than quite frequently, and that as likely as not would be associated more with impossibility than with high probability.In short, I expected not, in the phrases above, to have the same implication as nothing does in, for example, as good as nothing.

Do you think not in these phrases is of some connotation different from what its commonplace definitions convey? Do you ever believe the component words preserve their meanings after these phrases are broken down and thus, are we supposed to treat the phrases the way idioms are treated?

I found one answer, but with no reference so far.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You are confusing two different constructions.

For the meaning you are after, you would have to use an actual quantifier: "as often as ten times a week", "as often as twice a year", "as often as every Tuesday", "as often as never". This follows the pattern of phrases like "as recently as last Tuesday", or "as soon as tomorrow". Basically with phrases of this kind you say that it's often/recent/soon, and then immediately quantify just how often/recent/soon it is.

Not is a completely different part of speech, it does not fit the pattern. "It happens as often as not" is a simple ellipsis of "it happens as often as [it does] not". So 50% of the time. This is a different pattern, compare it to another common phrase "more often than not". Which, again, does not mean "more often than never", but rather "for every time X does not happen, it does happen at least once". So 50+%. It happens more often than [it does] not.

Likewise for "as likely as not". If you are after solid examples, you can search the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which has 18 cites, or the British National Corpus (BNC), which has 21. Here are some of them:

  • Of course, as likely as not, I'll throw it away.

  • Me, I think it's as likely as not that I'll be on that particular plane.

  • The wooden box to which all these fittings were fixed probably contained the gaming pieces, which were as likely as not also made of ivory.

  • But last year, after a two-year battle, Devereaux convinced the Veterans Administration that his cancer was as likely as not linked to the water at Lejeune — something only one other vet had managed.

  • The farm worker is as likely as not to be found standing shoulder to shoulder with his employer defending the farm and its game — a literal case of poacher turned gamekeeper.

  • Then, it seemed hours later, when he sensed or smelt or somehow divined that he was almost at the road, there came, as likely as not out of his own imagination, the delicate sound of an indrawn breath.

  • She would smile, and hand me the ball, which I would toss behind my back and catch in front of me, then roll down my arm and catch again (as likely as not dropping it and comically flailing into a routine of awkwardness and dismay) and pass back to her.

Follow the links for more examples.

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It also carries a sort of implied at least in most cases, shading in just beneath more than likely on a scale of probabilities, especially in its like as not vernacular form. Often used in the sense of "sure, those hoofbeats could be unicorns, but have you considered horses?". –  bye Aug 1 at 10:45

This is the same ellipsis as in, say, as good as gold:

It is as good as gold (is good).

Everything except the contrasting material is deleted:

This is true as often as (it is) not (true).

If something is true as often as not it is true at least half the time, and generally more often.

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The "not" in this context refers to a 50-50 chance of either the positive or negative outcome.

A substitute I might use is "the converse": As often as the converse. As likely as the converse.

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This usage is slightly archaic, and contracted. As you've probably guessed, the format is a comparative phrase. For example:

He went as far east as I went west

I have as many melons as you do

The repetition adds to the confusion, but if I said

I have a larger number of melons than you

... hopefully it doesn't look as weird. It's the same style of sentence.

I mentioned that the phrases you mention are a shortened form. Expanded out, the first is easy to read:

He won at bingo as often as not

He won at bingo as often as he did not win

The second is almost slang, and is harder to follow:

My mate is descended from royalty, as likely as not

It is just as likely that

my mate is descended from royalty

as it is that

my mate is not descended from royalty

If you're still confused at the end of all that, don't worry. You won't ever use this language construct, as likely as not!

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