How often do you study grammar rules in English? Do you do it regularly? Or hardly ever? A fundamental aspect of learning any language is learning to express how often you do things. In English, as in Spanish, we generally do this by using adverbs of frequency:
a. You’re always complaining!
b. I’m very busy so I hardly ever have time to watch TV.
c. Easter sometimes falls in March, but it usually falls in April.
When do you use this grammar area?
Adverbs of frequency allow us to express how regularly something happens. Our recent overview of English grammar spoke about how an adverb can have various functions. For example, it can describe a verb (“he drives quickly”) or it can describe a whole clause (“Luckily, he escaped from the accident uninjured”).
Adverbs of frequency also have these functions but, as their name suggests, they express how often the verb happens (see sentence a above) or how often the entire clause occurs (see sentences b and c above). An adverb of frequency is almost always just one word, with the exception of the adverb “hardly ever”. How do you know which adverb of frequency to use? That depends on the level of regularity that you want to express. Use the table below to help you.
|100% of the time||Always
|Edinburgh always has short days in winter
Em Edimburgo os dias de inverno são sempre curtos
|80 – 90% of the time||Usually
|Winters in Edinburgh are usually very cold
Os invernos en Edimburgo são normalmente muito frios
|50 – 70 % of the time||Often
|It often snows in Edinburgh in winter
Em Edimburgo costuma nevar no inverno
|20 – 40 % of the time||Sometimes
|Edinburgh sometimes has winters without snow
Em Edimburgo às vezes há invernos em que não neva
(de vez em quando)
|5 – 10 % of the time||Hardly ever
|The temperature in Edinburgh hardly ever goes over 30 celsius
A temperature em Edimburgo quase nunca passa dos trinta graus
(raramente, quase nunca)
|0% of the time||Never
|Edinburgh never has short days in summer
Em Edimburgo os dias nunca são curtos no verão
What are the rules for the structure?
The most important rules related to adverbs of frequency are related to using them in the correct position in sentences. There are three common positions, depending on the type of verb:
with verb "to be":
- After do verbo "to be".
- Example: You are always late (Chegas sempre tarde).
with auxiliary and modal verbs:
- After the modal or auxiliary verb
- I have often considered becoming a vegetarian ( Algumas vezes já pensei em ser vegetariano).
- I can never remember his name! (Nunca me lembro do seu nome do nome dele!).
Other main verbs:
- Before the verb.
- I usually work on Tuesdays (Normalmente trabalho às terças).
These rules for adverb position may seem a little random. Why put the adverb after the verb “to be” but before all other verbs? The reason for this may be related to pronunciation. When a fluent English speaker is talking they almost always contract the verb “to be” and auxiliaries (so “You are late” becomes “You’re late”; “I have considered” becomes “I’ve considered”; etc.). This means that an adverb before the verb “to be” or before the auxiliary would interfere with the contraction. And so the adverb appears after these items. Read more about connected speech in English pronunciation.
Exceptions and variations
As in Portuguese, adverbs are not the only way to express frequency. It’s also possible to use multi-word expressions, especially ones which incorporate the words “every” or “a”:
- Bradley goes to French class every Tuesday and Thursday
O Bradley vai às aulas de francês todas as terças e quintas-feiras
- Tanya travels abroad at least three times a year
A Tanya viaja para o estrangeiro, pelo menos, três vezes por ano
- Sophie phones her grandmother once a week
A Sophie liga à avó uma vez por semana
Note that these expressions of frequency usually come at the end of the sentence or clause.
While there are general rules for the correct position of adverbs of frequency in sentences, certain adverbs can break these rules. When the speaker wants to emphasise the adverb, it’s common to place it at the beginning (or even at the end) of the sentence. This is particularly common for adverbs which suggest “middle” frequency, like usually, often, sometimes, etc. Consider the sentence:
- I sometimes work on Saturdays
Às vezes, trabalho aos sábados
This is correct and follows the rules outlined in the previous section. However, it’s also possible to say:
- Sometimes, I work on Saturdays
The function of putting the word “sometimes” at the start of the sentence emphasises that this fact might be a little surprising - perhaps we would have imagined that the speaker always had Saturdays off. (In Portuguese, to emphasise, we can use the phrase to start the sentence, but with a special emphasis on "Às vezes", as if to say: Trabalho alguns sábados).
LearnEnglish Teens has more useful information on adverbs of frequency and their positions.
What common mistakes do Lusophone speakers make with this grammar area?
As explained above, certain adverbs can appear in more than one possible position in a sentence. However, it is never possible to insert an adverb between a verb and its object:
Frequentemente, leio romances de ficção científica >
- I read often sci-fi novels. ✗
- I often read sci-fi novels. ✓ (Or, for emphasis, use "Often, I read sci-fi novels" or "I read sci-fi novels often").
The adverbs “never”, “rarely”, “seldom” and “hardly ever” have a negative implication. This means that they must be used with verbs in the affirmative. If the verb was in the negative form, the sentence would contain a double negative and this is not possible in English:
Agora nunca compro CD >
- I don’t never buy CDs nowadays. ✗
- I never buy CDs nowadays. ✓
Because the adverb “never” has a negative implication, it only describes things which have not happened. To describe things which really have happened, we use the adverb “ever”:
É o melhor filme que há vi >
- It’s the best film that I have never seen. ✗
- It’s the best film that I have ever seen. ✓
When using the expression “have to” to express obligation, remember that the “have” in this case is a verb, not an auxiliary. This means that the adverb usually comes before it.
Tenho sempre que dormir a sesta depois de uma refeição abundante.
- I have always to take a nap after a big meal. ✗
- I always have to take a nap after a big meal. ✓
Are there any famous examples?
- I will always love you - In this famous song from the 1990s, Whitney Houston told her lover that he will always be in her heart.
- We are never (ever ever) getting back together - In her 2012 worldwide hit, Taylor Swift told her ex that she never again wants him as her boyfriend (here the words “ever, ever” just emphasise the idea of “never”).
- Tomorrow never dies - This 1997 movie tells the story of James Bond trying to save the world by chasing an evil criminal who wants to start World War Three. In Portuguese, the title of the movie was “007 – O Amanhã Nunca Morre”.
- Forrest Gump - In this 1994 film, the main character Forrest says the famous line “My mama always said that life was like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’re going to get”.
Each of the sentences below contains one mistake. Find the mistake and correct it.
- I always am happy when I finish work early.
- Susan has been never to Thailand.
- Gerald needs to take his medication three times for day.
- Always I try to arrive at the office before 9 a.m.
- It doesn’t hardly ever rain in Beja.
- I eat sometimes muesli for breakfast.
- I always don’t remember my keys when I leave the house.
Answers (a long way) below
- I am always happy when I finish work early.
- Susan has never been to Thailand.
- Gerald needs to take his medication three times a day.
- I always try to arrive at the office before 9 a.m.
- It hardly ever rains in Beja.
- I sometimes eat muesli for breakfast (or, for emphasis, "Sometimes, I eat muesli for breakfast" or "I eat muesli for breakfast sometimes").
- I don’t always remember my keys when I leave the house (Or “I never remember my keys when I leave the house.”)