In English, you have the following phenomenon:

○ I sometimes play jazz piano.

? I rarely play jazz piano.

That is, when you have a predicate that usually does not take place, you can use "sometimes" with it, but "rarely" is weird without further context, like "I play various styles of piano, but I rarely play jazz piano."

That is to say, "rarely" is not just specifying that the frequency you do the action is very low, but that you are somehow doing it less than expected.

You can contrast this with ○"I play jazz piano every once in a blue moon", which really just is saying you play jazz piano with a very low frequency.

Linguistically, I think this means "rarely" has a "negative polarity". As supporting syntactic evidence, it licenses negative polarity items like "any": ○"I (never→)rarely see any of them", vs ×"I (always→)sometimes see any of them".

Is 稀に negative like "rarely", or can you use it naturally with the following sentence?



2 Answers 2


No, I don't believe 稀に has negative polarity. I think 「稀にジャズピアノを弾きます」 sounds more like "I do play jazz piano, although infrequently." than "I don't play jazz really, except for rare occasions". Here are some examples.

Although I occasionally/infrequently received letters from him, I saw him in person only once

巴里(パリ)にては夏のさかりに夕立なし。 ... 紐育(ニューヨーク)にては稀に夕立ふることあり。
In Paris, we don't have showers in midsummer. ... In New York, there are infrequent showers.

「稀にしか…しない」 form, on the other hand, has the negative polarity. (If I understand correctly, that is.)

One only rarely encounters poets whose name deserves remembering. When one does, even rarely, it's a fortune.

Many French works, which I had often been told about but only rarely listened to

In high school, we are often advised to translate rarely with explicit negative clause, 「めったに…しない」.

I rarely play jazz piano.

  • 1
    でも「稀にみる」はどっちかというと negative な気がするなあ….「稀にみる傑作」は見る機会が少ない方に重点がある.
    – Yosh
    Jan 15, 2018 at 3:40
  • 若干自信がないので,指摘や議論,あるいは上の用例をひいてどなたかがもっといい答えを投稿してくださるなら是非お願いします.
    – Yosh
    Jan 15, 2018 at 6:12

I don't believe that 稀に has a negative inference as does めったに. 稀にis generally positive.

As an example of it being used to refer to 'rarely' in a positive sense: 稀に起こらない事故/事件 would be '(Fortunately) An accident/incident that occurs rarely.'.

As an example of it being used to refer to 'rarely' in another sense: この薬はまれに副作用が起こる場合があります。'This medicine has rare occurrences of side effects.' This is a positive spin on a negative occurrence, i.e: fortunately rare.

See this page for a Yahoo Q&A post answer on the subject (including めったに) or this page for a HiNative Q&A answer (Question is in Chinese).

たまに would be quite different in frequency, but generally positive.

  • 3
    I think my question may have been a bit unclear. “Negative” here is a term of art from linguistics — it doesn’t mean “unfortunate”, but rather refers to the fact that a statement is saying something doesn’t happen, as opposed to positive, which refers to a statement which says something does happen. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirmative_and_negative Jan 15, 2018 at 2:37
  • Then I guess I don't really follow you, unless you are referring to adding the negative (ない) form, as in めったにピアノを弾かない, which is actually more natural sounding than the example. Your example, however said 'play rarely' as opposed to 'don't play often at all'.
    – BJCUAI
    Jan 15, 2018 at 2:50
  • 4
    Maybe this will help? You can see “rarely” listed as one of the negative polarity triggers: www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/NPIs.pdf Jan 15, 2018 at 2:53
  • 4
    Yes, at first glance “rarely” is claiming that something happens, but it’s actually claiming that that thing happens less than one would have expected, so it’s in some sense claiming that something doesn’t happen! Jan 15, 2018 at 2:55
  • Sorry if I'm being obtuse, but as I see it, that's where めったにない (hardly ever) comes in. If not, I don't believe that I can be of any assistance other than adding that the しか ーない structure might be a suitable alternative. ピアノをたまーにしか引かない (only occasionally, with a negative context)。ピアノを週一回しか引かない。
    – BJCUAI
    Jan 15, 2018 at 3:31

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