1) I can't often breathe normally.

2) I often can't breathe normally.

3) I am unable to breathe normally often.

4) Often, I am unable to breathe normally.


Is there a difference between '1' and '2'?

How about between '3' and '4'?






Original Post

Yes, and yes.

(1) means it is unusual for me to be able to breathe normally.

(2) means that I am usually able to breathe normally, but there are frequent exceptions to that fact.

To rephrase:

1': I usually can't breathe normally, but sometimes I can.

2': I can usually breathe normally, but sometimes I can't.

I hope you find this helpful.



You wrote:

Would it change anything if one replaced 'often' with 'usually'? To me they are virtually synonymous.

They are not the same.  Compare your (2) to my (2').  Here, I've actually replaced "often" with "sometimes" in order to contrast it with "usually".


5a:  I sometimes watch television on Tuesday nights.
5b:  I often watch television on Tuesday nights.
5c:  I usually watch television on Tuesday nights.

All three of these are subjective expressions, and there is considerable overlap in meaning between "often" and "sometimes" and between "often" and "usually" (not so much between "sometimes" and "usually").  Generally speaking, "often" implies greater frequency than "sometimes", but can stop far short of "usually".  If I watch television one Tuesday night out of every month, I might consider that "often", while someone else might not think that that is very often at all, and might apply the words "sometimes" or "seldom" instead.  Either way, it certainly does not constitute "usually".  If I watch television almost every Tuesday night, that is also "often", but it's also "usual".  (5c) means that, on a normal Tuesday night, you can normally expect to find me watching television, and if a Tuesday night happens and I don't watch television for the entire night, that's unusual.

Shared element:  All of these expressions imply something less than "always".

Also, note that the root word of "usually" is "use", as in:

6:  I am used to watching television on Tuesday nights.
7:  I use to watch television on Tuesday nights.

I need to point out, though, that I consider (7) an archaic form.  It was used by Shakespeare 500 years ago (for example, see Romeo and Juliet, III.v), but is rarely if ever used today.  However, it does survive in the past tense:

7':   I used to watch television on Tuesday nights.

As always, hopefully helpful,


PS: And yes, the closing was an off-handed reference to a Steve Stills song.

Thank you very much, DocV,

I think I get it. Now, I'd like to ask another question, hoping I am not trying your patience.

Would you say there is a difference between:

8) I can't  usually watch that show on TV.

9) I usually can't watch that show on TV.


I think that the same difference that exists between '1' and '2' exists between '8' and '9'. But I am not entirely sure.





PS. I don't know that song. You got me there, as you usually do! 




Navi, in my mind, (8) and (9) are very similar in meaning, much more so than (1) and (2), whose differences I've already pointed out.  I certainly welcome any educated alternative point of view, as always.

In terms of the postscripts, I was referring to a song called "Helplessly Hoping", which was written by Steve Stills and famously recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash and released on their eponymous debut album.

In the past, you have shown a great bit of knowledge about popular music from that era.  I suppose I just assumed that you were familiar with this song as well.


Thank you very much, DocV,

I think this is just idiom. It seems to me that logically the same difference should exist between '8' and '9', but as you say, it doesn't. 

I never really got into Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). It's just a matter of taste, I guess. I do appreciate their craftsmanship, but do not like the way they sound that much. 

I listened to 'Helplessly Hoping' just now. I sort of like that one. 

It is good that you make these references. I discover stuff! I like it. 



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