3

They often don't know how to react to compliments.

or

They don't often know how to react to compliments.

Which sentence is correct?

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  • 1
    It's not often that you place "often" in a negative sentence.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 11:40
  • 2
    Both are fine in the eyes of this descriptivist.
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 12:12

2 Answers 2

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It's often the case that often implies more than an insignificant number of occasions, but less often than the much stronger usually (which invariably means more than half the time).

Since by default, often modifies the immediately-following element, this leads to a difference in meaning between OP's two examples. Taking the same construction and applying it to a simplified statement you just made about your wireless printer, for example..

1: It often doesn't work
2: It doesn't often work

Now let's suppose that after I heard you make one of those statements, I was invited to place a bet at 50-50 odds on whether the printer will work the next time it's used. You can be quite certain I'd bet on Will work after #1, but I'd bet on Won't work after #2. Either way, if I didn't win my bet, I might well accuse you of deliberately misusing language to mislead me into making a bad bet.


Any native speaker Many native speakers1 would interpret #1 as meaning that although there are some (annoyingly frequent) occasions when it doesn't work, usually (more often than not) it does work.

On the other hand, #2 would be interpreted as meaning that more often than not it doesn't work.


I have to admit that distinction isn't so clear-cut for me with...

3: It doesn't work often

...which I'd normally interpret as being closer to #2 than #1 above. But because it's inherently less idiomatic, I might well struggle to understand exactly what was intended.


1 Apparently not all native speakers think the same as me, as reflected by this comment below. I will admit I'm often wrong about such things, particularly if there's a US/UK usage split I'm unaware of. But linguistically speaking, I think that admission is perfectly consistent with my ongoing claim that I'm more often right than wrong. Whatever - let's just see how the votes go.

To spell it out for OP's exact examples, I think the first version implies that usually they know how to react, but sometimes (a not insignificant number of times) they don't. Whereas the second version implies that it's actually quite unusual for them to know (but sometimes they do).

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    Extraordinarily well put.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 13:43
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    I find myself completely disagreeing with this (especially your "any native speaker" comment). I would say that it doesn't work in the majority of cases in all versions of the sentence. If you want to imply that it's only a minority of cases where it fails, I would expect to hear sometimes or occasionally. The word often means "many times: FREQUENTLY," and its location in the sentence doesn't change that meaning. None of these variations are unclear to me, nor does any mean anything other than "it fails the majority of the time." Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 14:44
  • @WS2: By the time I got to making my final point, I was starting to suffer from lexical fatigue, but coming back totally fresh now (after doing today's Guardian crossword, which kinda kept the language processing part of my brain ticking over), I think maybe I shouldn't have said it "isn't so clear-cut". Obviously if there is no "immediately-following element" (because often comes at the end of the sentence), we naturally assume we must apply it to the immediately preceding word, making it almost precisely equivalent to #2. Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 14:51
  • @Jason Bassford : I'm afraid we'll just have to disagree completely. But it would be good if you could post an actual Answer outlining your position, so we could see how the votes pan out. I'd like to hope that my "How would you bet?" scenario will help people decide whether they would infer anything at all from the position of often in my examples. Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 14:53
  • @JasonBassford Your North American ear may be tuned slightly differently. But I'm entirely with Fumble Fingers on this.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 7:38
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The main point, I think, is not the appropriateness of "often" but its correct placement in the sentence. The correct placement is "They often don't know how to react to compliments." "Often" should not be placed in the middle of the verb phrase ("don't know").

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