Intended for healthcare professionals

Fillers When I use a word

Sometimes, never

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 24 August 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:445
  1. Jeff Aronson (jeffrey.aronson{at}, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Oxford

    If something always happened, what percentage frequency would you assign to that event? Presumably 100%. And if something never happened? Presumably 0%. Well, not everyone shares that opinion. By “always” some mean as infrequently as 91% of the time, and “never” can mean as often as 2% of the time. The combined results of seven studies of what people mean when they use words such as always, commonly, often, frequently, occasionally, sometimes, seldom, rarely, and never are summarised in the table (for references see Drug Safety2005;28: 851-70). For comparison, I have also included definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary.

    Interpretations of words used to indicate frequencies

    View this table:

    Look, for example, at “occasionally,” “infrequently,” and “seldom”; according to the dictionary they all mean roughly the same thing, but the frequencies that people think these words represent do not overlap at all. Perhaps the lexicographers should reconsider some of their definitions—although surely not “never”—nohow. And perhaps when we use words like this we should remember what the German conductor Hans Richter supposedly once said: “Up with your damned nonsense will I put twice, or perhaps once, but sometimes always, by God, never.”