"I'm going to show you a telegram from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador in Mexico."
  She looked astonished. "Where did you get that?"
  "From Western Union," he lied.
  "Isn't it in code?"
  "Codes can be broken." He handed her a typewritten copy of the full English translation.
  "Is this off the record?" she said.
  "No. The only thing I want you to keep to yourself is where you got it."
  "Okay." She began to read. After a moment, her mouth dropped open. She looked up.
  "Gus," she said. "Is this real?"
   "When did you know me to play a practical joke?"
  "The last time was never." She read on. "The Germans are going to pay Mexico to in-vade Texas?"
  "That's what Herr Zimmermann says."
(Ken Follett, Fall of Giants)

What does the highlighted part mean? When never were in the front –– “Never was the last time” –– I might have passed smoothly the spot. Can the never be stranded at the rear of the sentence? Or is it some other structure?

  • 2
    "The last time was never" is merely a stylish way to write simply "never"."Never was the last time" -I never heard such construct.
    – Mistu4u
    Oct 4, 2013 at 12:55
  • 4
    The last time I knew you to play a practical joke was never - that is, I never knew you to play a practical joke, but jocularly recast in a form that leads her hearer to expect The last time I knew you to play a practical joke was 1908. Oct 4, 2013 at 12:57
  • 1
    – WendiKidd
    Oct 4, 2013 at 13:20
  • 1
    How is it stranded? What makes never was the last time different from the last time was never?
    – user230
    Oct 4, 2013 at 16:29
  • @snailboat: In case your question isn't rhetorical -- I think Listenever is trying to extrapolate from the use of stranded to describe a preposition that is not pied-piped (like the for in "that I asked for", as opposed to that in "for which I asked").
    – ruakh
    Oct 5, 2013 at 6:30

2 Answers 2


"The last time was never" is a manner of saying that something has not occurred before.

The usual pattern for this sentence is "the last time was [time]", where we can insert any one of numerous indications of time, such as:

  • The last time was five minutes ago.
  • The last time was yesterday.
  • The last time was at five p.m.

Although "never" is an indication of time, it is different from those above times which are somewhat like nouns; it functions more like an adverb.

For instance consider these, of which the first one is ungrammatical:

  • It five minutes ago happened. *
  • It happened five minutes ago.

And compare to these, where the second one is a borderline case: it is not outright ungrammatical but unusual.

  • It never happened.
  • It happened never. ?

"Five minutes ago happened" does not work because "five minutes ago" cannot function as an adverb. It follows the special grammar for indicating the time of an action, which follows the verb. However "never happened" is grammatical: "never" functions as an adverb modifying "happened".

"It happened never" follows a pattern whereby a clause introduces some element outside of the clause. We might write that with a colon: "It happened: never." This is similar to a structure like, "I know what I will order: a hamburger!" Similarly, "the last time was never" can be regarded as "the last time was: never".

Or possibly, "the last time was ... never", where the speaker begins to speak, then pauses to think and realizes that the event has never happened before, and utters the word "never". A longer version: "the last time was ... hmm, come to think of it, never! It has never happened before!".

The word never can function as a noun indicating time, when it is by itself. For instance it can be a curt, one-word answer to a question. All of these answers are correct:

  • Q: When was the last time you went to Disneyland?
  • A: Never.
  • A: Just yesterday.
  • A: Last year.

In "the last time was: never", the word functions in this way. The verb "was" is simply equating "last time" with a noun-like "never" just like "apple" and "red" are equated in "the apple was red".

The word "never" is not functioning as an adverb modifying was, which happens in a different kind of sentence like "there never was a last time, because it never happened before".


"The last time was never."

It means "Never", but to be honest this phrase sounds strange to my native English-speaking ears. For this reason I'm wondering if the author is trying to convey the idea that the women in this excerpt is not a native speaker.

  • 1
    Actually, I think it's the kind of wordplay that you're more likely to hear only from a fluent speaker. Oct 13, 2013 at 4:11
  • @David Schwartz You think one thing and I think another. Given the above context, it's certainly not a given that this is a wordplay or that even a few percent of fluent speakers would interpret it as such.
    – Baz
    Oct 13, 2013 at 10:41
  • It's said in an ironical way. Usually we mention a time expression which we can then trace back to. In this case, there is no tracing its history because "it" (play practical jokes) had never been mentioned.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 18, 2013 at 6:17

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