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Generally speaking what are the usually accepted usage scenarios for the above mentioned words in a normally occurring English vernacular?

In short, what are the rules/guidelines for using generally, usually and normally?

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Some people generally prefer usually to normally, while other generally prefer normally to usually. Others normally prefer generally to usually while some normally prefer usually to generally. Still others, though, usually prefer generally to normally and there are those that usually prefer normally to generally. I generally say usually but sometimes normally. :-) –  Jim Jun 12 '12 at 1:35
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More often than not, ordinarily will work, too. For that matter, so will more often than not – generally speaking. –  J.R. Jun 12 '12 at 1:47
    
@Jim: Wish I could give you a +1 as a new user I don't have access to the privilege just yet. –  Gerdiner Jun 12 '12 at 1:53
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are some subtle differences:

  • Usually - X repeats over time, and some kind of variants happen more frequently than others. (time separation is implied)
  • Generally - there are multiple instances of X, and there is more of some variant than others. (no time separation is implied)
  • Normally - there are multiple instances of X, and there is more of the "standard" ones than the "weird" ones. (qualitative difference is implied).

Examples:

  • I usually shop at the grocery store on the corner. (I do it repeatedly)
  • Generally, the prices at the shop on the corner are lower than down the street. (most of the prices are lower, now)
  • Normally, the shop is open 6AM-10PM, except during World Cup, when the owner closes at 6PM. (it's a special exception)
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They are generally similar, but as the basic meanings of those words show, generally seems to look at the broad picture and does not worry about minor details; normally focuses on the norm as opposed to exceptions; usually talks about frequency of events or describes a habit.

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I would say that usually and generally have a purely descriptive value: they mean that the phenomenon discussed happens with high frequency.

Although normally can have that meaning too, it may also have a prescriptivist connotation: "this is the way it usually is and the way it should be".
In other words that's what normal people - a distinctly judgmental characterization!- do or expect.

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I think "generally" has a more general use where "normally" and "usually" each imply that perhaps there is some hint to the contrary and that the speaker / writer is contrasting. However, I can see them all being used identically with little to no misunderstanding.

"I normally wouldn't do this, but..." "Oh, it's usually a lot more crowded here." "We generally eat lunch at noon."

Edit I wasn't fully satisfied with my own answer, so I Googled and found this.

CalifJim: The example I came up with, before reading any other responses, was similar to Clive's. People don't normally walk about naked in public. You can substitute usually, but the emphasis on "conformance to norms" is more important when you use normally. For inanimate objects, usually often seems more appropriate than normally. Our piano usually goes out of tune once the weather turns cold. (It's not really normal for a piano to be out of tune, so usually seems better here, but here again, you can substitute normally.) CJ

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Interesting take. So one needs to consider whether or not there is some uncertainty to the use of either of the words to mean in "most cases" or "most of the time" or "What is assumed to be the common occurrence". –  Gerdiner Jun 12 '12 at 4:11
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(Speaking from personal experience: American native English speaker with most of my time in IN & FL with a strong influence from KY & TN) In everyday casaul usage when the speaker wants to use one of these words, each is probably as likely as the others to be used. I really like the distinction made by CalifJim on the other site, "normally" for "conformance to norms" and "usually" for something that happens frequently but would be outside of "normal", like the piano being out of tune. –  TecBrat Jun 12 '12 at 12:39
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Generally something occurs generically enough in order to make a generalisation. It can be uncertain and conjecture.

Usually implies that something occurs often enough for it to be expected, but not assumed. In order for something to happen usually it must have happened in the past.

Normally states that the occurrence is the norm, not that any other outcome would be weird, but that the normal outcome is the most commonly occurring (or the mode). Use of normally implies that there is a norm, which generally and usually don't.

So:

Generally when the apocalypse comes people will run for their lives.

As the apocalypse can only happen once usually doesn't work:

Usually when the apocalypse comes people will run for their lives.

Also, as the apocalypse would not have a norm, so normally doesn't work either:

Normally when the apocalypse comes people will run for their lives.

Or another example:

Generally people will vote in the next general election.

Usually they'll vote for the same party that they did last time.

Normally people vote for one of the two largest parties.

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