"Rarely, or ever, did any maid or wife leave that court chaste," observed the sixteenth-century French ... (The New York Times)

I'm still not able to correctly use "ever" even if, when I read such word in a piece, I understand its meaning from the context.

On Merriam Webster Dictionary I read "ever" means "always", but I'm sure that "always" in the place of "ever" doesn't work in the sentence above: "Rarely, or always, did ...". Rather, "Rarely, or always, did ..." seems a nonsense.

Instead I'm less sure that replacing "ever" with "not always" doesn't function:"Rarely, or not always, did ...".

Also, another option that came to my brain is "not never", but it seems awkward: "?Rarely, or not never, did ...".

However, what it be the proprer form, I'm quite confused.

In reference to the sentence above, can anybody explain why "Rarely, or ever, ..." is correct, but "Rarely, or always, ...", "Rarely, or not always, ...", "Rarely, or not never, ..." are, eventually, not?

And, how about "rarely, or not ever, did ..."?

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    What a great question! I think it should should be "rarely, if ever", at least today. This expression makes sense (if it happens at all, it doesn't happen often). From Google Ngrams, it looks like "rarely, or ever" was used instead of "rarely, if ever" by a substantial minority of writers between 1650 and 1900. I don't know whether this simply was a common mistake, or some feature of English grammar which is now archaic. Apr 13, 2013 at 21:39
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    @PeterShor: Garner's American Usage says of "rarely, or ever": The phrasing "rarely or ever" has no justification at all (books.google.co.uk/…)
    – Matt
    Apr 13, 2013 at 21:50

1 Answer 1


That has to be a typo or a brain-burp.

The usual phrase is

Rarely, if ever, VERB SUBJECT ...

This inverts Subject and Verb as in questions, and as in questions VERB must be a form of be or an auxiliary: finite lexical verbs require DO-support.

Rarely, if ever, is the work ilk used correctly today.
Rarely, if ever, does she wear makeup.

The underlying logic is

If X ever VERB, it VERB only rarely.

The phrase turns this around to create a little climactic figure.

Logically, you could also say *Rarely, or never, VERB X" but this is not common; instead, rarely or never usually occurs in normally structured sentences:

The work ilk is rarely or never used correctly today.
She wears rarely or never wears makeup.
The construction Rarely, or never, VERB X occurs rarely or never.

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    From Google Ngrams, it was a remarkably common brain-burp in the late 17th/early 18th century. I think it must have been one of those phrases like "I could care less" or "head over heels" which people repeat without even realizing that it doesn't make sense when taken literally. From that Ngram, "rarely or ever" has nearly entirely died out during the 20th century, but it seems to linger on in a few people's speech. Apr 13, 2013 at 21:53
  • @PeterShor Yes, I think that's exactly the case. I find in those hits several 19th century grammar and style books advising readers to avoid this construction (and similar ones like seldom or ever); they seem to have made their point effectively. Apr 13, 2013 at 22:00
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    Oops. I meant late 18th/early 19th century above. Apr 13, 2013 at 22:08
  • Stoney, does "If X ever VERB, it VERB only rarely" have the same, or similar, meaning of "If X eventually VERB, it VERB only rarely." For example: "If this file eventually runs, it runs only rarely" = "If this file ever runs, it runs only rarely"?
    – user114
    Apr 13, 2013 at 22:22
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    @Carlo_R. Not really. Eventually means "finally, after a long time"; ever means "on at least one occasion in its history". Ever includes eventually--for instance, If I ever actually meet him--but in this construction you would have to say "[Even] if this file eventually runs it will run only rarely". And you would probably say "eventually does run", since you're contrasting it with the fact that it has never run yet. Apr 13, 2013 at 22:39

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