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As per answer to When do we use "rarely, hardly, seldom"?, the words "rarely" and "seldom" are synonyms and can be used interchangeably.

I wonder if this is really the case in spoken English. I am not talking about grammatical correctness, but common usage. As a non-native speaker, I find the following sentence to be odd in a casual setting:

I seldom go to the movies these days.

I would prefer this one variant instead because it sounds less formal:

I rarely go to the movies these days.

Can someone shed some light on whether my hunch is correct, whether the words are really interchangeable?

The reason I came up with this question is that I often hear other Germans prefer "seldom" over "rarely" because it sounds very close to the German "selten", so it's an obvious natural pick. On the other hand I only rarely hear the word in spoken English and I think I have never used it myself.

If I'm wrong in my assumption that the words have different nuances, I think it would help me to have a few example sentences that use the word "seldom" when used by native speakers in an everyday casual context.

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    I don't find rarely 'less formal' than seldom. In informal speech it would be "I don't often go to the movies these days". Dec 1, 2022 at 9:31
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    Do you rarely hear "seldom" or seldom hear "rarely"?
    – Henry
    Dec 1, 2022 at 10:49
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    In spite of "Andy M's comment, some regard 'seldom' as equivalent to 'very rarely'. But I wouldn't distinguish these words myself. But the intensified 'very rarely' and 'extremely rarely' and intensified/otherwise modified 'annoyingly rarely' etc are available, while 'extremely seldom' and 'annoyingly seldom' sound unnatural to my ears. Of course, adjectival 'seldom' (where it persists) cannot be substituted by 'rarely' ('It is seldom that a month passes by without my receiving several letters on this subject'). Dec 1, 2022 at 12:36
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    @EdwinAshworth: To a first approximation, I'd say all your misgivings about "qualified" uses of seldom probably just stem from the fact that you don't hear or use it anywhere near as often as rarely. If I compare the usage charts for I seldom / I rarely and I very seldom / I very rarely, it seems to me we were just as likely to use the intensified version of seldom as we were to use the unqualified version, back when seldom was far more common than rarely. Dec 1, 2022 at 19:01
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    Your first example (I seldom go to the movies these days) sounds odd to my American-English ears. I can't prove this and haven't researched it, but seldom would seem more likely with the passive voice: The movies are seldom attended these days. Dec 2, 2022 at 2:53

3 Answers 3

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As per answer to this question, the words "rarely" and "seldom" are synonyms and can be used interchangeably.

It is usually a mistake to think that two English words are true synonyms, i.e. interchangeable in all circumstances without alteration to the surrounding meaning.

What happens in dictionaries is that, rather than a definition of an entry, (which, for logical reasons, cannot be done by including the word itself) we have a close paraphrasing in various contexts.

The guidance is "If the word or phrase is different, then the meaning or nuance is different."

English has words from (i) Latin, (ii) Norman French, and (iii) Anglo-Saxon, respectively the language of the (i) educated, (ii) the ruling classes and (iii) the rest of us. Whereas, over 1,000 years has given some levelling among the three, it has by no means been 100% effective, and words introduced from one of the sources will usually have nuances of those who spoke them.

Rare is from the Latin - Seldom is from the Germanic.

Beyond this, like many English words, they are not univocal. Consider the meaning of rarely as (OED) Thinly, scantily; sparsely.

1797 J. Bailey & G. Culley Gen. View Agric. Northumberland (new ed.) viii. 100 They [sc. rich grazing pastures] are so rarely scattered, that few farms are so fortunate as to enjoy so desirable appendage.

And the completely different:

1797 J. Bailey & G. Culley Gen. View Agric. Northumberland (new ed.) viii. 100 They [sc. rich grazing pastures] are so seldom scattered, that few farms are so fortunate as to enjoy so desirable appendage.

Or

1982 Harvard Stud. Classical Philol. 86 260 These notes are very full for the first Eclogue and are scattered rarely in a few other Eclogues.

Whereas this has an entirely different meaning (or is wrong)

*These notes are very full for the first Eclogue and are scattered seldom in a few other Eclogues.

Then we have the meaning for rarely as (OED) 3. Unusually or remarkably well; finely, splendidly, excellently.

1989 J. Picton & J. Mack Afr. Textiles v. 105 These cloths are both rarely woven and expensive.

Also: 1977 Daily Tel. 13 May 18 George Daniels..was rarely honoured in Stockholm yesterday. The Stockholm Watch Guild awarded him its Victor Kullberg Medal, bestowed only three times before.

(Rarely (OED) -> 4. To an unusual degree; exceptionally, very.)

"Seldom" is not going to work, is it?

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    "It is usually a mistake to think that two English words are true synonyms" That's so true, and it's frankly frustrating that dictionaries like Merriam-Webster keep abusing the tenuous concept of synonym, even in their definitions, let alone their thesaurus. The only way I could think of for any pair of words to be synonyms at all is for them to be dialectal equivalents, so that they're semantically "equal" in their own dialects, rather than being restricted to different registers in a single dialect. Like "rucksack" & "abseil" in British English vs "knapsack" & "rappel" in American English. Dec 1, 2022 at 17:04
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    But the poster is clearly not concerned with other meanings of the word rarely, but its use in a sense similar to "seldom". He is asking whether there are subtle nuances there. So although I agree with your "no true synonyms", I don't think this is an answer to the question.
    – David
    Dec 1, 2022 at 18:20
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    @David: So far as I can see, OP isn't exactly asking whether the two words are semantically "equivalent" (a fairly meaningless concept, imho). He's asking whether they're freely interchangeable in any given context. And the main reason they're not "equivalent" is the massive shift in relative prevalence over the past couple of centuries. For almost all learners, that's about the only relevant factor in terms of distinguishing the two words. Dec 1, 2022 at 18:53
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    @Chaim — “inhume”? What language is that? (Doesn’t flag up on my phone. )
    – David
    Dec 1, 2022 at 19:49
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    @David I'm afraid it's English. It's in the dictionary at the Merriam-Webster site. It's sort of like "inter."
    – Chaim
    Dec 1, 2022 at 20:31
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I’m not sure that this question doesn’t suit ELL better — certainly we don’t supply examples for learners. I am also hesitant to base an answer “yes” purely on personal experience. However, as there is one answer “no” (the two are not interchangeable in this context) I’ll stick my neck out.

  • In the context of the sense in which the words are used in the two example sentences I would say there is no difference in meaning between seldom and rarely.

  • From my experience as a child having to learn the word at school, I would say that seldom is less used in conversation, and more used by educated people, especially in writing. However, difference in social group preference does not equate to difference in meaning for a word.

As @Greybeard states in his answer, there are other uses of the word rarely in which seldom does not work — but it does in going to the cinema (I mean movies).

Footnote
A Google books ngram search for “seldom go out” v. “rarely go out” (with inspection of the books retrieved) suggests that seldom was more commonly used in written matter until the mid-twentieth century, when rarely started to increase in popularity.

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  • Thank you, I am not aware at the line between ELU and ELL, sorry if this was the wrong place. Maybe I also phrased the question poorly, I was specifically interested in cases where one or the other would be perceived as a strange choice. Initially I thought using seldom instead of rarely was incorrect, something like a false friend, but that does not seem to be the case. So now I am searching for where my negative reaction towards the word came from. My only explanation is that I never really heard the word a lot in movies or conversation, so apparently it's just used less today.
    – Cerno
    Dec 6, 2022 at 12:51
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Seldom is oriented towards situations that are linear in time. It carries with it the sense of not-very-often, the viewpoint being to regard a series of events one-at-a-time.

Rarely doesn't automatically bring this to the table. It needs context. It is often used to mean infrequently, but can also be used in situations that don't involve time - Electric cars rarely make economic sense. I prefer rarely over seldom in the sense of improbable at any one instance in time, particularly when you are taking a global perspective on the set.

If you use seldom in the same sentence - Electric cars seldom make economic sense - it has the perspective of considering each case one-by-one, which happens over time, at least metaphorically.

Things that are inherently repetitive or sequential work well with seldom - cooking eggs in the microwave seldom works well.

While I didn't find this distinction stated in any dictionaries, I did find that the example uses, when listed side by side, did follow this pattern, with seldom always being used for an occasion-by-occasion treatment. Also there are answers on Quora and other sites that have made the same observations. But it's a pretty fine distinction, and with just a little context, rarely can cover seldom's uses.

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  • I was exactly looking for nuances like this. As some commenters noted, there are no true synonyms, so I was looking for examples where one or the other would be more appropriate, even in nuances. What makes your answer very interesting is that you attempt an explanation about these nuances. The problem is that there may not be dependable sources to verify this claim. Could you provide some links to the results of your research? Otherwise I'll try to search for this discussion myself (although I initially did that before asking the question, but I may have missed something).
    – Cerno
    Dec 6, 2022 at 12:56

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