I came across these sentences in Oxford Dictionary where it says we can say the sentence 1 but not 2. Sentence 3 was written by me in order to compare.

She hardly (ever) sees her parents these days.

She barely sees her parents these days.

She scarcely sees her parents these days.

I'd like to ask why. My understanding is that the second sentence implies that as if there is a physical obstacle between ( the girl and her parents) them like maybe a long and wide walls so it does not make sense.

I'd like to compare two these sentences so as to make sure I got them right.

For example :

They hardly do exercise.

( what is your first impression? For example because they don't have time to do exercise etc.)

They barely do exercise

( If this sentence makes a sense ,what is your first impression? Could you infer from the sentence that they cannot do exercise even though they want because there is a physical problem with their bodies)

  • Check out this NGram, which shows a significant change in usage over time for AmE. (note that this is overall use, not use in this particular context). books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 20:16
  • Why do you think the dictionary says you can't use barely? It's an adverb - it modifies how she sees her parents - and it means "in a way that almost does not happen or exist". So it means that she almost does not see her parents at all.
    – stangdon
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 21:46

3 Answers 3


According to the source you provided

“Hardly” and “scarcely” can be used to mean “almost never,” but “barely” is not used in this way:

  • She hardly (ever) sees her parents these days.
  • She barely sees her parents these days.

“barely” doesn't convey the aforesaid meaning “hardly” does.

Your interpretation isn't quite lucid to me, but I think it's close to mine; i.e. “to barely see someone” means “to not be able to see someone clearly”, as if the view is obstructed in some way, or similar -- compared to the intended meaning “to hardly ever see someone”.

In the second part, I have the impression that your understanding is perfunctory. Firstly, the idiom “do exercise” doesn't strike me as common but I maintain it's grammatical.

Anyhow, my interpretation of your first example is “they seldom do the exercise”. Other meanings could be assigned as well. I interpret the second sentence as “they do the exercise with difficulty or struggle to complete it”.


The three adverbs are largely interchangeable in these examples, but not their range of usage is not necessarily 100% identical in all cases.

In the first set, I would naturally interpret all three sentences to mean that there tend to be long time intervals between visits with her parents. Remarks:

  • Hardly ever and scarcely are synonymous, and unambiguously mean long time intervals between visits.
  • Barely could lead to a different interpretation — one of degree, rather than frequency: Her macular degeneration has gotten so bad, she barely recognizes her parents' faces these days. Though one must admit that some ambiguity is possible here, I would still tend to go with the "infrequent visits" interpretation, mainly because it would be odd to single out her parents if her eyesight is failing.
  • Hardly ever works better than hardly to convey that meaning, especially since ever helps to reinforce the "infrequent" over the "to a small degree" interpretation.

Based on similar principles, I would say that

  • They barely do exercise probably means "to a low degree", something like They barely do exercise — all they do is mall walking. "Low degree" may or may not also imply low frequency.
  • They hardly do exercise is awkward and ambiguous. I'd recommend saying either They hardly ever exercise (infrequent) or What they do can hardly be called exercise (not really qualifying as exercise).

The choice of adverb depends to some extent on the sentence (YMMV), but it doesn't work the other way round: the adverb alone does not really give you enough information to work out the reason why they don't do much exercise.

In typical usage, you would not say

They hardly do exercise.

You would add information to explain what exactly you mean:

They can hardly do exercise - ability- they find it difficult

They hardly ever do exercise - they exercise infrequently

They hardly do any exercise [at all] - they don't do very much exercise

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