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Never = certainly not

Posted: Sun Jul 18, 2010 4:24 pm
by Audiendus
The following point arose on another discussion forum, and I would be interested in any opinions about it.

The basic meaning of 'never' is 'not at any time'. However, it is often colloquially used simply as an emphatic negative with reference to a single event. For example:

"I never heard you come in just now."

"You never mentioned that when I asked you the first time."

"You lied to me!" "No, I never!"

"That's never a fox!" [= that's certainly not a fox]

There seem to be divided opinions as to whether this usage is standard English or slang. Some people even call it ungrammatical, but I disagree.

The thought behind this use of 'never' seems to be something like "I will never admit that...." or "there can never be any possibility that...."

Any views as to whether this is good English?

Posted: Sun Jul 18, 2010 5:31 pm
by saparris
I never thought about never as having so many nuances in meaning, but I suppose it’s never too late to consider them.

Clearly, never in a pure semantic sense means not ever, suggesting a seemingly endless period of time. For example:

God never sleeps.”

“We never have made unsecured loans and likely never will.”

Then there seems to be a middle ground in sentences like “I never lied to you” in response to “You lied to me.” The person making the accusation is probably referring to a specific instance, whereas the respondent could easily mean never in the sense of not ever.

"I never heard you come in just now" and "You never mentioned that when I asked you the first time" both make reference to a specific occurrence and would be better as “I didn’t hear you come in….” and “You didn’t mentioned that….”

I wouldn’t call these sentences slang, however. Rather, I see them as examples of spoken English, where rules and pure semantics are often overlooked. That doesn’t make them ungrammatical. It just makes them informal.

I’m not sure that there is a more grammatical “thought” behind these less formal uses of never, but I don’t consider them slang or ungrammatical. I simply think that we don’t have the time to parse spoken English as we utter it.

My opinion is that all of your examples are good spoken English that might be written a bit differently.

Posted: Sun Jul 18, 2010 6:33 pm
by Slava
I was about to reply, but then I thought, "Never mind."

Posted: Sun Jul 18, 2010 9:01 pm
by Audiendus
Thanks, saparris - I basically agree with your comments.

Posted: Sun Jul 18, 2010 9:11 pm
by saparris
You're welcome, Audiendus. I basically agree with myself as well. Not always, but certainly not never.

Posted: Tue Jun 21, 2011 10:01 am
by sluggo
When-never I hear this type of use of never I assume the speaker is British. It's almost never used as such on this side of the pond.


Posted: Tue Jun 21, 2011 10:57 am
by Perry Lassiter
I frequently hear the word used as a substitute for "no." "Never" in that case means "absolutely not," "no chance," and often stands alone. "Did you do that?" "Never."