The Grammarphobia Blog

Never-never land

Q: Is “never” accepted as standard English in a sentence like “He never saw the world that way”? If not, why not? And what are some informal and formal ways to use “never,” as well as more borderline ways if there are any?

A: Yes, the use of “never” in your example (“He never saw the world that way”) is standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the adverb “never” has these standard meanings:

“1. Not ever; on no occasion; at no time: He had never been there before. You never can be sure.

“2. Not at all; in no way; absolutely not: Never fear. That will never do.

In the sentence you cite, the adverb “never” is being used as in #1 (“not ever; on no occasion; at no time”).

A few usage guides, beginning with Edward S. Gould’s Good English (1867), have objected to the use of “never” as in #2: “not at all; in no way; absolutely not.”

But Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that the critics don’t explain “just what is wrong” with these usages. “Such uses are standard,” Merriam-Webster’s says, citing examples going back to Shakespeare.

American Heritage also includes several meanings of the phrase “never mind”:

“1. Don’t bother: I was hoping for some help, but never mind, I’ll do it alone.

“2. Not to mention; and certainly not: I can’t tread water, never mind swim.

AH labels “never mind” as an “idiom,” which it explains is “an expression consisting of two or more words having a meaning that cannot be deduced from the meanings of its constituent parts.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists sense #1 of “never mind” without reservation, but it describes sense #2 as colloquial—that is, characteristic of spoken English or informal writing.

However, the question of whether a usage is formal or informal is very subjective. Dictionaries often disagree about this. In fact, the two of us often disagree with each other about the formality of a usage.

And formal English, mind you, isn’t necessarily better than informal English. We try to keep our writing as informal as possible, whether we’re writing an email to an old friend or a book about the English language.

The OED describes a half-dozen common uses of “never” as colloquial. We don’t necessarily agree with the dictionary’s editors about all of them, but we’ll list them here (with our examples) and let you decide:

● With “ever” as an intensifier: “She’ll never ever do it.”

● With the verb omitted, expressing emphatic denial: “Did you steal it?” “I never!”

● Without the verb, expressing disbelief: “He was caught sexting.” “He never!”

● Using “never mind” to mean “not to mention”: “She hates spiders, worms, beetles, never mind slugs.”

● Without a verb, expressing surprise or indignation: “Well, I never!”

● Using “never again” to emphasize that an experience won’t be repeated: “Every time I get smashed I say, ‘Never again.’ ”

As for the history of the word itself, “never” dates back to the early days of Old English, when it was generally spelled næfre. It’s a compound of ne (not) and ǽfre (ever).

In Old English, according to the OED, næfre meant “at no time or moment; on no occasion; not ever.”

Here’s an example from Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as the year 725: “Næfre ic maran geseah eorla ofer eorthan.” Modern English: “I never saw greater warriors in the world.” (We’ve changed the letter thorn here to “th.”)

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