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Difference Between “Usually” and “often” – “often” misunderstood

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In English Grammar, the two words “usually” and “often” are classified as adverbs. An adverb adds to a verb. In other words, an adverb describes, modifies or provides more information about a verb in a sentence. So, if you said “I am going to quickly eat lunch and go shopping,” the adverb in that sentence (quickly) would be modifying the verb eat.  You can recognise an adverb by the fact that it often ends with “ly” such as slowly, quickly, usually, happily, sadly and many such words.

What does it mean when we say “usually”?

Usually is used for something that happens or one does as a habit ,so it is more regular and predictable.  For example, the sentence “He usually spends his vacation in Singapore with his family”, we understand that the person concerned habitually or regularly spends his vacation in Singapore, but there may be rare occasions when he does not do so.  “Usually” is not “always”.  Always implies that there is not a single occasion when the action described is not carried out.  For example consider the sentence “Life is always followed by death”.

The word “often” is used for something that happens or one does frequently, but not on a regular basis.  For example the sentence “Mumbai often gets flooded due to heavy rains” conveys to us that this event happens frequently but not regularly.  If we were to say “Mumbai usually gets flooded due to heavy rains”, the implication is that the flooding occurs regularly.  Looking at the sentence in the paragraph above, “You can recognise an adverb by the fact that it often ends with “ly” such as slowly, quickly, usually, happily, sadly and many such words”, we conclude that all adverbs do not end in “ly” on a regular basis, but a lot of the time, they do.

A general guideline for differences between these words is:
often for something you do 60 %
usually for something you do 80 %
always for something you do 100%

Three friends, Sheila, Leela and Ela are at an airport awaiting the departure announcement.  Sheila says: Sky Air is always late.
Leela says:  That’s not true.  Sky Air is often late but usually due to bad weather and it is very bad weather today.
Ela adds her comment:  Sky Air is usually on time.  Bad weather can delay all flights.

What do we understand from this conversation?  According to Sheila, there is never an occasion when Sky Air leaves on time(100%).  Leela’s assessment is that Sky Air’s flights are frequently (60%) delayed but not regularly, and these delays are mostly (80%) caused by bad weather.
Ela’s answer is that Sky Air is regularly (80%) on time, except when bad weather occurs before takeoff.

Here are some more examples of the use of “usually”.

  • We usually invite friends for dinner on Saturdays.
  • It usually rains in India from June to September.
  • It is usually not advisable to go on a safari without a guide.
  • Bats usually fly after dusk.
  • Grocery stores usually sell toiletries as well.

We can re-frame the sentences as shown below, with the same meaning.

As a rule, we invite friends for dinner on Saturdays.
Generally speaking, it rains in India from June to September (but it can rain in October as well).
As a rule, you are not advised to go on a safari without a guide.
Generally, bats fly after dusk.
In general, grocery stores sell toiletries as well.

Some examples illustrating the use of “often”:

  • I often go to the cinema with friends.
  • How often do you get sick – once or twice a month or once a week?
  • We often tell lies to get out of an awkward situation.
  • It rains in London very often.
  • Travelling by train in Europe is often faster than flying.

Re-framed the sentences could read as below:

  • I frequently go to the cinema with friends.
  • How frequently do you get sick – once or twice a month or once a week?
  • On many occasions we tell lies to get out of an awkward situation.
  • It rains in London very frequently.
  • Travelling by train in Europe is at many times faster than flying.

Restrict the use of “always” and “never”, unless you are sure of your statement’s 100% certainty.


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[1]grammar.yourdictionary.com

[2]https://pixabay.com/en/grammar-magnifier-magnifying-glass-389907/

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