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is there a difference in nuance or formality between ほとんど~ない, めったに~ない and まれ?

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My first instinct is that ほとんど〜ない is a little stronger (as in, describes a rarer occurrence than) めった〜ない. This is lightly backed up by this slightly unusual example sentence from the Tanaka corpus (not always a reliable source). The use of まれ seems uncommon - I'd never heard of it until this question. Anyway, this is all speculation on my part - I'm not qualified to answer this question. –  ジョン Apr 6 '12 at 19:55
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@ジョン まれ will come up from time to time in written form, at least. :) –  summea Apr 6 '12 at 20:39
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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

First lets take on ほとんど~ない and めったに~ない

The big difference between the two can be expressed with these two keywords: 程度 and 頻度.

  • ほとんど~ない expresses 程度 (you could think of it as "degree" or "extent") and 頻度 (frequency) (credit @sawa for pointing out ほとんど has both)

  • めったに~ない expresses 頻度 only (or 回数の多さ, you could think of it as "frequency" or "how often something happens (or is performed)). Also, めった in 漢字 is 滅多. Notice the relationship with ?

Lets look at some examples:

漢字がほとんど読めない

彼の声がほとんど聞こえない

In the above examples, the ほとんど cannot be replaced with めったに. Do you see why? The concept of "how often" for the ability to read 漢字 and ability to hear someones voice doesn't make much sense.

However, lets look at an example were both can be used.

テレビをほとんど見ない

テレビをめったに見ない

Both can be used here. However, I feel that ほとんど~ない is more common (Googling both phrases gave me a lot more hits for テレビをほとんど見ない.) There also may be other subtle differences, however I could not find conclusive evidence at this time (if anyone has any insight please let me know!).

Also,

めったに見ない車

When I read the above (the action of seeing), I think めったに~ない is better here (unfortunately that might be a personal opinion).

Now, lets add まれ to the bunch. まれ falls under the same category as めったに, in that it expresses frequency. The difference is in the usage (the meaning is exactly the same as めったに見ない).

まれに見ない // Not Japanese

まれに見る // Okay

まれ technically is already a negative expression meaning 実現・存在することが非常に少ないさま。また、数少なくて珍しいさま (reference), so you can't use it with a negative as in the first example because it would become a double negative.

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1. Good point about ほとんど vs. 滅多に, and that distinction is true, but the implication goes only one way. That is, 滅多に can only mean frequency, but ほとんど can mean frequency or extent. The latter cannot be necessarily replaced by the former, but the former can be replaced by the latter. 2. Your point regarding * まれに見ない is correct, but rather than saying that まれ is used for positive expressions, you can say that まれ itself is already a negative expression, and does not co-occur with extra negative elements. It is comparable to the equally ungrammatical (non-)English "* I barely don't see it". –  sawa Apr 9 '12 at 5:59
    
@sawa: Thanks for the comments, I agree with what you said (will update my post later). Question: Do you think there is any difference between テレビをほとんど見ない and テレビをめったに見ない, I feel like the former is better (but maybe that is because its more common). –  Jesse Good Apr 9 '12 at 6:14
    
There may be subtle differences, but it is too subtle for me to feel. Both are fine. –  sawa Apr 9 '12 at 6:30
    
Thanks for your extensive answer! So one could not use まれ~ない to say that something is 'not rare'? For what it's worth, Tatoeba has a number of examples lik that. ex.: 90歳以上生きることは決してまれではない。 Yahoo Dict also has quite a few in definitions of other words. ex.: 腕の数は普通5本であるが、4本あるいは6本のものもまれではない。 If this is correct, is it also possible to reverse ほとんど and めったに in a similar manner, or is it a unique feature of まれ? –  Philip Seyfi Apr 9 '12 at 8:17
    
@PhilipSeyfi As Jesse writes, you cannot use the adverb まれに with another negation, but as in your examples, you can use the adjectival noun まれ with a negation. You can use ほとんど either in affirmative or negative, but めったに can only be used in negation. –  sawa Apr 9 '12 at 8:22
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