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Q&A: Often vs oftentimes

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're oft the record…

Q: Hi AWC, would you say that we chat often?

A: It’s a regular thing, yes.

Q: Okay good. And often, we might discuss words and phrases – yes?

A: Yes, we often do that.

Q: Okay. So, is there any difference in saying: “Oftentimes we discuss words and phrases”?

A: So you’d like to know about the difference between the adverbs “often” and “oftentimes”?

Q: Yes please.

A: Short answer – there is NO difference. The original word waaaay back in the 13th century was “oft”. Dictionaries still tend to list it, but typically as “archaic” and confined to the “hey nonny nonny” realms of poetic usage these days.

Q: So when did “oft” become “often”?

A: Well, that derivative arrived by looking over the fence at what the opposite meaning word was up to. “Selden” (later “seldom”) was also established around – meaning “not repeatedly or rarely”. It’s likely that “oft” felt a bit inadequate and decided to grow an “en” on the end to create the matching pair.

Q: You know that words don’t have feelings, right?

A: Nothing has been proven. Anyway, it wasn’t until the 16th century that “often” properly took over. And it’s been used often ever since.

Q: So, what about “oftentimes”?

A: This one came along in the 14th century, originally as “oft-times” or “often-tide” – because “tide” was heavily linked to “time” back then, as seen in “Yuletide” to mean “Christmas time”.

Q: So did they read TIDE magazine?

A: No, magazines hadn’t been invented.

Q: Good point.

A: So anyway, “oftentimes” emerged as a rather redundant variation. These days, it’s still around but the Macquarie Dictionary lists it purely as an archaic version of “often”.

Q: Then why do I keep hearing Americans use it ALL THE TIME?

A: They use it often?

Q: YES – typically/frequently/often at the beginning of a sentence.

A: You’re not imagining things. While the rest of the world has tucked “oftentimes” away in a dusty corner, North America appears to have kept it going. As America’s Merriam-Webster dictionary confirms: “Despite its literary ring, oftentimes is quite alive today.” Unlike Macquarie, it is not listed upfront as “archaic”.

Q: So what are some examples?

A: To quote the dictionary examples, “Seemingly untoward events oftentimes lead to successful results.” OR “Oftentimes, he is the only man in the yoga class.”

Q: Poor guy. It sure is a downward-dog-eat-dog world out there.

A: Indeed.

Q: Hey, what do you say if you’re asked to leave a yoga class?

A: No idea.

Q: Nah… Must stay!

A: Groan.

Q: Okay, back to “oftentimes”. So is it really just an American thing to still use it? Everyone else just goes for “often”, right?

A: That’s right. It’s usually the Americans who are decisive with words while the rest of the world dithers about, so this makes a nice change.

Q: But there are times when everyone has to use “often”, right?

A: Yes, typically when it comes after what it is modifying. For example, the classic pickup line, “Do you come here often?”

Q: I wonder if that has ever worked on anyone, ever.

A: Maybe it’s more successful at yoga studios.

Q: True.

A: This whole topic will seem fairly obvious to anyone outside of America who would never choose “oftentimes” as it seems so quaint and old-fashioned.

Q: Yeah, it’s odd how America has persisted with it.

A: English is an ever shifting sand…

Q: More like quicksand.

A: There is actually some evidence showing that “oftentimes” has increased in usage over the past 20 years. While “often” is still preferred, the longer, redundant version is becoming more common.

Q: “Oftentimes” is making a comeback. Hey nonny nonny!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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