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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Things are seldom what they seem

I was quite surprised to see on the Royal Opera House's YouTube channel a reference, written by someone at the ROH,  to "Kenneth MacMillan's seldomly performed Rite of Spring". Seldomly? The word "seldom" is already an adverb, and a very old one, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. It doesn't need an -ly tacked on the end of it. It's a myth that adverbs have to end in -ly, which I'll come back to further down.
But this led me to investigate "seldom" a bit more, and unfortunately it looks as though it may be dying (or at least ailing). Perhaps this is why the ROH writer didn't know how to use it. Google's ngram shows a decidedly consistent downward trend in frequency of usage since the 1820s (click here to see it), when "seldom" seems to have been by far the most common term for the notion "not often". "Rarely", as the chart reveals, has been plodding along steadily throughout that time.
"Seldomly", though very rare compared to any of those synonyms, showed a remarkable uptick from 1960 on (click here to see it). My theory is that, as "seldom" became less and less frequent, fewer English speakers knew that it is in fact an adverb. And something they had been taught in school led them to "fix" it by adding -ly.
In addition to adverbs that have no -ly form and no corresponding adjective, like "often", "soon", and "seldom", there is a category of adverb, called "flat adverbs", where the adjective and adverb have been identical since the Middle Ages. Think of "come close, work hard, run fast, sing loud, do right, hug tight, go slow". But the prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century, to whom we owe many of the ill-founded (wait a minute, there's another one - "ill") grammatical bugbears we were taught in school, could not understand how these words could be adverbs, and, maintaining that they were misused adjectives, inveighed against their use and decreed that they should be replaced by their siblings ending in -ly. Generations of schoolchildren have been subjected to this rule, with the result that many of my students and audience members, reacting to -ly-less adverbs, bewail to me that "adverbs are dying" (which of course is impossible). Inevitably this leads to hypercorrection ("correcting" something that is already correct, based on a misunderstood "rule"), which I believe is the root of the upsurge in "seldomly" in the last 50 years.
I'm curious to know your thoughts about "seldom". Do you use it? Often? Occasionally? Never? Or... seldom? Let me know in the comments (or on my facebook page).


  1. I seldom use seldom and never use seldomly!!

  2. Hello,

    Disconcerting! I thought "go slow" and the like were incorrect "colloquialisms"! Now I learn that they are the correct versions of accepted, "hypercorrected" versions of the correct ones. That's what happens when you learn your English late and from the streets ...

    I use "seldom" ... "seldomly" (thanks for making me aware of it; it seems automatic spellcheckers don't like it either). Perhaps because Latin is closer to me than Germanic.

    I was around the age of 15, when I got a book "Stories about Pioneers". One of them, about a scientist whom I had never heard about before (or since), Carl/Karl Auer ... (I won't ask Google, now). He, a poor family's kid, was neighbors with a ... princess (!?) whom he fell in love with since they were both kids ... This princess loved him too, but ... she had to marry into royalty, later, when she reached mature age.

    Auer later became a doctoral student. Upon asking his advisor for a research subject, he was repotedly told: "Arbeiten Sie mit seltenen Erde", something like that.

    When Auer became famous (?!) for his incandescence lamps (based on "rare earths") and wanted to let his old-time friend know about it, his princess had just died at the birth of her n-th child.

    Later, I realised "seldom" was "selten", but failed to see it was an adverbe.

    Now, every time I now read/hear about "rare earths" (including the claimed monopoly of it, reportedly sought by China), I remember this story, read at an age when I was dreaming about scientists (with or without princesses).

    Thank you.

  3. I use seldom on occasion with seldom occasion.

  4. There is a difference between adverbs of frequency, which usually appear before a verb, and adverbs of manner, which usually appear after the verb+object. “Seldom,” “often,” “always,” and “never” are adverbs of frequency. In my experience, no one expects these words to end in "ly" because they are not adverbs of manner (although “rarely,” “usually,” and “frequently do).


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.