Letters + Opinion » Mailbox

Rarely Relevant




While it is crucially important (or all commerce will cease) that "I" and "me" get their proper due ("Lord Is It Me?" Dec. 27), there is a set of modifiers that are so misused that communication is compromised. To deal with this debilitating state of affairs, at the beginning of each semester I would ask my students to quantify how often a certain behavior matches with modifiers of frequency. That is, if something "rarely" happens, does that mean it happens 5 percent of the time or 10 percent or 20 percent or more?

The words I asked to be quantified were: usually, always, mostly, occasionally, sometimes, rarely, frequently, often, seldom, never, and commonly. I would gather their efforts and summarize them for the next class period. Some of the responses defied credulity. For example, "rarely" was seen to apply to a frequency of anywhere from 1 percent to 35 percent. However, while the range of descriptions varied almost beyond comprehension, sometimes something else occurred that warmed the cockles of my academic heart. Commonly the students referred to the modifiers in the same order, ranked by frequency. Occasionally a student might reverse sometimes and seldom, but mostly the relative rankings were consistent from year to year.

Perhaps these peregrinations are simple exercises in useless academic trivia.  But when a student says "I never smoke dope" he/she should mean never, not "I only smoke once a day" (meaning all day). It may be that these distinctions are more important in psychology than elsewhere, but the students felt it was an eye-opener (usually).

Larry Hourany, McKinleyville

Add a comment