When I read these two sentences out loud, I feel that they express very different things.

 1. Job interviews don't always go well.
 2. Job interviews always don't go well.

At least to me, 1) implies that job interviews often don't go well, but there may be some that go well, and 2) is literally what it says, i.e. job interviews never go well. I believe I am correct as the "I don't always" meme also seems to imply the same concept.

Am I correct?

  • related, possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/60173/… – Kit Z. Fox Jul 9 '14 at 13:27
  • Yes, you are correct. I wonder who or what gives you the idea that the two sentences would mean the same? You only give arguments for them not being the same. – oerkelens Jul 9 '14 at 13:50
  • Because many sentences that vary in the same way do mean the same thing. – John Lawler Jul 9 '14 at 14:40
  • "Always don't" seems rather an ugly and needless periphrasis for "never." – Brian Donovan Jul 9 '14 at 14:50
  • Agreed. But it's grammatical and synonymous. – John Lawler Jul 9 '14 at 14:56

Your intuitions are correct. They do mean different things.

The particular difference is predictable from the relative positions
of the negative don't and the universal temporal quantifier always in the propositions.
There are two possible positions.

  1. The negative can include the quantifier in its scope
    Job interviews don't always go well, in logical terms
    NOT (ALWAYS (Go-Well (Job-Interviews)))

  2. The quantifier can include the negative in its scope
    Job interviews always don't go well, in logical terms
    ALWAYS (NOT (Go-Well (Job-Interviews)))

Quantifiers, Negatives, and Modals are all logical operators and have very complex interactions.
In particular, any clause with two of them is potentially ambiguous, unless it's compositional,
like your examples. See The Logic Guide for further information.

  • 1
    This is very easy to understand! – CookieMonster Jul 10 '14 at 9:59

You are correct. The I don't always meme, which has many fine examples, does indeed affirm this.

The technical reason, if you want one, comes intuitively if we consider the order of operations, given by the positioning of the words within the clause they form.

Taking your sentences as you gave them, then:

Job interviews don't always go well.

In this sentence, always is applied to the act of 'going well', and don't is subsequently applied to always, with the effect of negating it. In set theory terms, in the complete set of all job interviews ever conducted (or to be conducted), it is not true that they all will go well. In other words, at least one of them won't.

This phrasing is very common, although depending on the ratio of job interviews going well versus not going well, one might substitute 'don't always' for something that indicates the broad probability of the success of job interviews - such as rarely, sometimes, or often.

Job interviews always don't go well.

In this sentence however, the inversion of don't and always radically changes the logical proposition indicated by the phrase. Here, don't is applied to negate the act of 'going well', and always is applied to to don't, making this negation universal. In set theory terms, in the complete set of all job interviews ever conducted (or to be conducted), it is true that they will all not go well.

This phrasing, however, is less common - always don't would much more naturally be substituted for never, a perfect word for assigning the condition of always being false.

  • 1
    Right, using "never" makes more sense in the second case. – CookieMonster Jul 10 '14 at 10:01

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