always never "all the time"

They aren't 'expletives', but they express a non-expiry. What word would describe this type of word?

Context : he never brings me flowers; he's always late; you criticise me 'all the time'.

  • Have you tried to find the answer yourself? What dictionaries did you check?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 13:16
  • 2
    @Close voters I think this question is on topic, because it asks about the linguistic classification of certain words or phrases and is not immediatly related to only Enlgish gramar and/or usage. Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 15:19
  • There is no word: you have to use a descriptive phrase.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 16:16
  • As a broad heading, I'd say they were quantifiers, more specifically adjuncts of frequency, duration and temporal location: “Always” can indicate frequency (She always won) or duration (I’ve always liked her). “Never” usually indicates frequency (He never answers my letters, "always doesn’t"), but can also be used for temporal location (he never answered my last letter, "at no time"). “All the time” indicates frequency (she cries when I’m not there), or duration (I’ve known that all the time). Is that what you wanted to know?
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 8:36
  • I would maybe describe them as definitive words?
    – NiaNya2
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 20:49

3 Answers 3


I would say those are temporal adverbs.

To be precise, all the time can not be an adverb since "adverb" is a word class but this phrase is not a single word. And you asked about the "kinds of words" (i.e. word classes), but you can not assign a word class to a phrase.
Syntactically, this phrase, just like always or never (which are syntactically single-word phrases), functions as an adverbial, a phrase which modifies a verb or clause - but here we are at a different level, because this is a grammatical function, not a word class.

As you said, they are not expletives, because they are an inherent part of the sentence's meaning.

Edit: You mentioned non-expiry - I don't know of any specific term for that.
The classification among temporal adverbs is rather between time point/span - duration - frequency, possibly others, but apparently not whether the adverb expresses expiry, non-expiry, having expired (i.e. past events) or whatever.
I assume the reason is that such a classification wouldn't be very meaningful, as there are types of temporal adverbs such as those expressing frequency that could not at all be classified w.r.t expiry - take the word sometimes; this is neither something that expires, nor something that doesn't expire nor something that has already expired. So I don't think there is an actual terminological classification w.r.t. expiry because this would only be applicable to a rather small set of adverbs.

  • That set would include "occasionally", "yesterday": do we think those are in his intended class? "Non-expiry" is in the OP.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 15:32
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    I very much dislike the term 'adverbial'. I think it is very unsatisfactory to have a function term that is morphologically derived from a category term. Adverb is a word category, and adverb phrase (a phrase headed by an adverb) the corresponding phrase category. Adverbial is a function and may be realised by an AdvP (He spoke quickly), a PP (He spoke with enthusiasm), an NP (He’s speaking this evening). AdvPs do not always function as adjuncts: they may function as modifier in AdjPs (It was quite amazingly expensive), etc. cont ....
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 19:45
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    .Adverbial phrase is quite often used for any phrase functioning as adverbial and hence likely to be confused with adverb phrase.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 19:46
  • I can somewhat understand your point of criticism, but from a terminological p.o.v., there speaks nothing against classifying adverb phrases also as adverbial phrases and since all the time is not an adverb, we can not treat it as an adverb phrase (because we don't have an adverb head), but have to name it adverbial phrase. So what would you suggest as a better solution for the classification of all the time? Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 19:51
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    "Exaggeration" is more something pragmatic, i.e. occurs with the use of language in certain utterance contexts and not as a general semantic meaning, so you can't talk about the "type of word" if you aim for effects like exaggeration because it depends highly on the surrounding sentences and, even more importantly, on the utterance context. You could also see "exaggeration" as a stylistic device, which is not what linguistics can or wants to provide any terminological classification for. Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 10:59

Always and never are adverbs of frequency. The phrase all the time is a noun phrase.

We use all three of these items as (temporal) adjuncts, a term which refers to their syntactic function, in other words what job they are doing in the sentence rather than what word or phrase category they are.

In terms of semantics and their being 'non-expiry' terms, I think one term that is sometimes used to denote this is that they represent unbounded periods of time.

  • Ah, I thought that "always" could also be 'duration' (I've always respected him). And "never" can also be 'temporal location' (Ed never replied to my last email, "at no time"). I also thought that "all the time" could be 'duration' (I've known that all the time).
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 16:34
  • @BillJ I think that's right. As far as I know they're most often referred to as AoFs but, of course, ... Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 19:57
  • @BillJ ... with never, it's most often not really possible to distinguish between frequency, temp location and duration. With always, of course it depends if you are talking about a state or an action/event. With all the time, I'm not sure that I can get that reading out of it (your example doesn't quite seem felicitous to me). But I was just using the terminology I'm usedto rather thn making a comment about their semantics. You're definitely more clued up there than me! If you think you could usefully edit my post, and felt so inclined, please do! (I didn't do any HW for this!) Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 19:57

I think your question is not really about linguistics, but about rhetoric, especially after this comment:

I added more context, which will make it more apparent that, 'exaggerations', was the classification I was looking for.

Syntactically, exaggerations can be almost any part of speech, any class of word or phrase, any syntactic position. Your examples include two adverbs and one noun phrase. They're all used as adjuncts modifying the verb or verb phrase—but an idiot can come up with an example where the subject of the sentence is an exaggeration, as I just did.

Semantically, exaggerations can likewise come from almost any category. Your examples are all temporal/frequentive quantifiers, but again, that isn't true for "an idiot" above.

But rhetorically, there is a good answer: All of your examples are cases of hyperbole: the use of exaggeration as an intensifier.

What you literally mean is that the friend you're discussing is often late. But you also want to get across the fact that you have strong feelings about him being often late. Saying that he's "always" late when that isn't literally true is one good way to do that; your listener will understand that you're complaining about your friend's habitual tardiness rather than just stating it as a fact.

To see how hyperbole works as an intensifier, compare "He's late so damn OFTEN". Adding "damn", stressing "often", and focus postposing are all intensifiers, and the rhetorical effect is similar to "He's always late."

And when I say "an idiot can come up with an example", I don't literally mean that; only a normally-intelligent native speaker with at least a bit of relevant education could do so. But using hyperbole intensifies the point: it's not even close to true that only temporal-adverb-like adjuncts can be exaggerations.1

1. But, as with all rhetorical devices, there's a risk of being misconstrued. The exact same exaggeration could be used to imply that you should have figured this out for yourself and not asked this question. I obviously didn't intend at all—if I didn't think you had a good question that deserved an answer, I wouldn't have written one—but without that context, you might not have had any way of guessing that.

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