One of the few benefits of being forced to attend weekly staff meetings is the opportunity to hear colloquial discourse in a setting where I can’t distract myself with a good book and can write down whatever interests me under the guise of taking notes. Today I heard two sentences that got me scribbling:
“I always usually say the wrong number.”
“I thought you may want to take a browse at that.”
The first exemplifies a pattern I’ve been noticing for years, particularly in women (though the sample is so small that may be random): the collocation of always with another adverb that appears to contradict it, mostly usually or sometimes. I don’t understand what’s going on here, except that I’m quite sure it’s not a misspeaking plus correction (“always… [I mean] sometimes”), it’s felt as a compound adverb by the speaker. How this might have arisen and how it should be interpreted I leave to psycholinguists and syntacticians, but I think it deserves analysis, and I’ve never seen a reference to it.

The second exhibits the continuing replacement of might by may, as well as a nominal use of browse I was hitherto unaware of (it’s in the dictionary: ‘an act of browsing’).

One reason I feel sorry for prescriptivists is that they are doomed to react to such things with blanket dismissal (“Wrong! Bad! Unclean!”), thereby missing a chance to think about, and possibly learn something about, their language and its speakers. But they do get to feel good about themselves, and I guess that’s a fair tradeoff.


  1. You’ll have seen Mark Liberman’s hoeing into that NYT article on Kawesqar. On top of page 6 there’s a quote from Norvin Richards, associate professor at MIT:
    ‘The number of people who contacted us in the last year is about 20, which in linguistics is a bit largish.’
    And of course ‘a bit largish’ describes it perfectly.

  2. I haven’t heard “always usually” used except by those who don’t know better. I think it’s just an attempt at intensification. As to “may” and “might”, I think the time when the two will be interchangeable, is near.

  3. “Always usually” means, I think, “very often” or “by default”.
    “By default” is a very useful phrase, but who except a geek would ever use it? “Always usually” is the right brain equivalent.

  4. I don’t think it’s intensification: I think it’s using “always” to describe the duration of a state, which is that one in which “I usually say the wrong number.” Think of it as shorthand for “You know, I’m always so distracted that I usually say the wrong number,” which is still stop-and-think-a-moment and maybe even inelegant, but isn’t, y’know, wrong. Per se.

  5. Kip’s analysis makes sense to me.

  6. My brother says “usually always” a lot, but I’ve never heard him say “always usually.” (He’s in fifth grade.) I can’t think of an example right now, so I won’t attempt to figure out what exactly he means when he says it…

  7. Since when has a confusing choice of words become “correct” or “not wrong” language? (LH, may we use this in wordorigins to see the responses there, please? It’s a good question).

  8. This is how I take it:
    “I always ____” is English for soleo. Therefor, adding an adverb like “usually” or “sometimes” is at most reinforcing the expression, not contradicting it.

  9. isn’t “a bit largish” more of an oxymoron than words that contradict one another?

  10. How this might have arisen … ?

  11. At the meetings I attend, I frequently hear double modals, which at first surprised me. Now. I’m used to hearing “you might could” or “he may can”.

  12. Hmm… interesting question. I guess it should be may. See, the confusion is spreading…
    Eliza: Feel free to borrow this for wordorigins.

  13. “Usually always” — the “always” strikes me as referring to a arbitrary shorter period of time (“I always drop my pen” only when having been carrying the pen) so it’s not as contradictory as it first seems.

  14. In this usage I take “always” to mean “habitually”.
    Therefore, “I am in the habit of saying the wrong number most of the time”.

  15. scarabaeus stercus says

    just a quote ? Hans Richter 1843–1916
    German conductor
    Up with your damned nonsense will I put twice, or perhaps once, but sometimes always, by God, never.
    attributed dah

  16. my speech is full of these double-modal sorts of things, but unfortunately though i’m conscious enough of it to find it funny when it happens, i don’t really have anything illuminating to say about it.
    a lot of them involve various modifications of possibility and necessity, which i suppose considering the contortions modal logicians are interested in might not be all that unusual.
    i generally make sense and am made sense of in these cases, for what it’s worth.

  17. I you’re talking about “might could” and the like, that’s a dialectal thing (I sometimes use them myself), and thus different… I think.

  18. IANAL, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard the kinds of double modal constructions you’re talking about, and I’ve certainly been to my share of meetings. It’s the sort of thing that would make my flesh crawl, not because I perceive it as “wrong,” but because it somehow suggests to me that the speaker doesn’t know what they mean either. That said, like languagehat I have certainly heard (and used) phrases like “must needs” but only to evoke a style.

  19. I nearly agree with Andrew Dunbar, in the instances where I have observed this usage his explanation is closest.
    To be more precise though I often get the feeling that always in this context is used to impart a feeling of intimacy, giving the implication that the usual dropping of the pen is something ingrained in the speaker’s character, and thus just as she has always dropped a pen 8 out of 10 times she has grasped one, she will continue to always drop pens with the same frequency, the always denotes an innate characteristic of herself, in this case, ‘usually’ dropping pens.

  20. I haven’t heard “might could” in the UK or anywhere, for that matter. Which is the dominant sense – probability (“might”) or possibility (“could”)?

  21. It is the equivalent of “might be able to,” but shorter and less awkward. (If it’s part of your dialect, that is.)

  22. > Never heard it here in coastal Georgia nor by the Tennessee Kentucky state line, near Robert Penn Warren’s birthplace. Never heard it on the tundra in Alaska. Never heard it in Memphis nor New Orleans. That’s not conclusive; of course, a study should be made.
    > Could it be an upper East Coast thing? A New York/New Jersey thing?

  23. No, I got it from the Arkie/Okie side of my family. Probably Mountain Dialect.

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