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A few years ago I had a roommate who was a French guy. He was learning English and occasionally asked me to clarify some differences. One question he asked me was the difference between "common" and "usual". I was stumped, and it has bugged me ever since.

It is clear that sometimes one is correct and sometimes the other, but I don't know what the distinction is. Can anyone help?

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2 Answers 2

To be simple, we would use 'common' to refer to something that is numerous, while 'usual' would refer to something that is regular.

Therefore,

He usually goes to Church on Sundays.

Commonly, people go to Church on Sundays.

In the first, we are discussing this man's routine, in the second we are discussing the number/percentage of people that partake in the activity.

With that in mind, we would say

The robin is common to all parts of England -not- The robin is usual...

He ordered his usual at the bar -not- He ordered his common...

Where these words are used as adjectives to describe people, there are further differences.

Usual as an adjective for a person is normally positive and means that this person is not out of the ordinary; they are not 'strange' or 'weird'

Common as an adjective for a person is normally negative and means that that person is of the working class, taken from a time when caste systems were rigid and important. Therefore, a common person is one who does not observe finer culture - because they are uneducated or else cannot afford to.

Hope this helps.

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Someone will probably give a much more exhaustive answer, but here's my take...

They can't be exactly the same "part of speech", because there are lots of utterances where you can't just substitute the other word without producing something stilted or malformed.

However, I'm guessing your question is aimed at the semantics, not the grammar. The meanings certainly overlap a great deal, but I think one key difference is that usual normally implies more often than not, whereas common frequently means relatively often. The significance of relatively there can vary, but it might simply be more than you might expect.

Thus you can correctly say It's common to throw a total of 7 with 2 dice, even though the odds of this are less than 1 in 5. But you can't say It's usual to throw a 7, because usually you won't.

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