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Tips & Tricks for "Not Very Often"

June 23, 2016

While writing the latest Grammar Practice Worksheets lesson on Adverbs of Frequency, I realized how the adverbial time expression "not very often" is confusing for students in more ways than one. Most adverbs of frequency are only one word and follow two easy patterns, one for the Be verb and one for all other verbs. Not very often has three words that get divided up in a sentence, and it follows more complicated patterns than its fellow frequency adverbs.

As long as we present these differences clearly, our students will be able to use this common adverbial expression…usually!

1. Not Very Often

Not very often means seldom, or about 20% (see our lesson, chart, or post on using percentages to teach adverbs of frequency). However, seldom isn't often used in informal spoken or written English. Most people consider it to be too formal and old-fashioned. That's why not very often is so important to learn—it's the more common choice by far.

2. Adverb of Frequency Patterns: Verbs

A. Adv + V

With most verbs in the simple present tense, the adverb of frequency is placed before the verb.

  • She always eats breakfast.
  • He never sleeps in.
  • They usually watch TV after dinner.

B. do + not + V (+ O) + very often

With the expression not very often, the not gets attached to the auxiliary verb do (which is the usual negative simple present sentence pattern). The very often part comes after the main verb and the object (if there is one).

Note that do not and does not are usually contracted to don't and doesn't.

  • I do not jog very often.
  • You don't eat vegetables very often.
  • We don't talk on the phone very often.

3. Adverb of Frequency Patterns: BE Verb

A. BE + Adv

With the Be verb in the simple present tense, the adverb of frequency is placed after the verb.

  • We are almost always late.
  • I am rarely hungry for breakfast.
  • She is often tired.

B. BE + not often + O

It is more common to hear not often with the Be verb, though not very often is sometimes possible. Not often is placed after the Be verb, followed by the object or adjective.

  • They are not often ready for class.
  • He is not often on time for work.
  • You are not often sick.

Note that there is more than one possibility of a sentence pattern with the Be verb and an adverbial expression meaning 20%. For low-level students, I would just teach the first one. If your students can handle it, show them the less common variants. Note that there is no difference in meaning.

  • They are not often ready for class.
  • They are often not ready for class.
  • They are not ready for class very often.

For more advanced learners, you could also elaborate on the not very often verb pattern above by explaining that it is possible to use not often instead. Not often is places between do and the main verb. There is no difference in meaning, but again, the first pattern is more common.

  • We don't talk on the phone very often.
  • We don't often talk on the phone.

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Comments (2)

Ali (Guest)

I'm wondering whether 'inversion' happens if 'not very often' comes at the beginning of the sentence (just as it does happen with seldom and rarely). For example can we say 'Not very often did they meet' instead of 'They did not very often meet.'?
Thank you

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Ali, good question. If you placed 'not very often' at the beginning of a sentence, then yes, you would need inversion. Just note that it sounds really old-fashioned and formal to have 'not very often' at the beginning of a sentence, so I'd avoid it.

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