The Grammarphobia Blog

When ‘even’ is odd

Q: Is the use of “even” correct in all these sentences? (1) “Even when he is sick, she works.” (2) “She works even when he is sick.” (3) “She even works when he is sick.” Thanks for any insight you can provide.

A: All three are correct: #1 and #2 mean the same thing, but the meaning of #3 is slightly different.

As an adverb, “even” has a number of uses, and one of them is to point out a special case or an unusual situation.

In your first two examples, “even” is used emphatically to suggest that the main clause (“she works”) is true not just normally but in an unusual situation (“when he is sick”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of “even” as “intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition implied.”

Here the “general proposition” is that “she works”; the “extreme case,” introduced by “even,” is “when he is sick.”

Interestingly, this use of “even,” the OED says, didn’t come into English until the 1500s and is unknown in the other Germanic languages.

In this sense, the dictionary says, “even” is “attached to a word or clause expressing time, manner, place, or any attendant circumstance.” In your first two sentences, the clause expresses a circumstance: “when he is sick.”

The earliest written example in Oxford comes from this lyrical passage in a 16th-century work on husbandry, or agriculture. The “husbande” here is a farmer:

“The leafe … turneth with the Sunne, whereby it sheweth to the husbande, euen in cloudie weather, what time of the day it is.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation from the Latin of Conrad Heresbach.)

Getting back to your question, the meaning doesn’t change when the order of the clauses is reversed, as in #1 (“Even when he is sick, she works”) and #2 (“She works even when he is sick”).

In both examples, “even” identifies “when he is sick” as the unusual circumstance under which “she works.”

But the meaning is slightly altered when “even” is attached to a different part of the sentence, as in #3 (“When he is sick, she even works”).

In this example, the emphasis has changed, because “even” is attached directly to the verb “works.” This makes the act of working (not his being sick) the extreme case.

The implication in #3 is that she does many things “when he is sick”—in fact, she “even works.” Imagine what’s unspoken here: “When he is sick, she [does this and that and] even works.”

We’re speaking now about a written sentence. In a spoken sentence, however, the speaker can influence the way the sentence is interpreted, as we’ll explain below.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call “even” in these senses a “focusing modifier.” It focuses meaning on a particular part of the sentence, much in the same way as “also,” “as well,” and “too.”

Even is typical of focusing adverbs in being able to occur in a wide range of positions,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. They illustrate with these sentences (note the shift in emphasis as “even” is moved):

Even you would have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed even dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed dancing even tonight.”

In the first, third, and fourth examples, the authors say, there’s only one possible interpretation—each of them different.

But where “even” modifies an entire verb phrase, as in the second example, “You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight,” there are three possible interpretations, and speakers can pinpoint their meaning by vocally stressing the word they intend as the focus:

“YOU would even have enjoyed dancing tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed DANCING tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed dancing TONIGHT.”

The authors add that “even” usually precedes what it modifies, “but in informal speech it occasionally follows,” as in “You would have enjoyed dancing tonight, even.”

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