I know "never" has two usage of "not" and "not ~ so far, but".

For example : A dictionary say "I have never been happier" has meaning of "not ~ so far, but" but "It has never been better" means "not".

When does "never" mean "not" and when does it mean "not ~ so far, but"?

  • Is the second example actually "negative"? To me (a native speaker), it's just like the first example. In a conversation "How are you? Never better!" the reply means you're doing well. Merriam Webster agrees. – Laurel Dec 18 '16 at 17:53
  • @Laurel How do native speakers use "never" differently? – Yuuichi Tam Dec 18 '16 at 18:08

Grammatically, never creates a negative. This is important to remember because you should avoid double negatives while writing:

Wrong: I never received nothing.
Right: I never received anything.

Wrong: Nothing never changes.
Right: Nothing ever changes.

Wrong: I have never heard nothing so clearly.
Right: I have never heard anything so clearly.

While some words have a positive connotation (such as fantastic) or a negative connotation (such as loser), this isn't the case with never. It just doesn't make sense to look at it like that.

Fortunately, it's usually easy to determine what it means:

She never said that.

This means she did not say that, at any point. (You will know what "that" is from context, of course.)

Never run with scissors.

This is a command (using the imperative). It's the same as saying "Do not run with scissors".

Your two examples, on the other hand, use never for emphasis:

I have never been happier.
It has never been better.

In the first example you're really happy, and in the second example something's going well.

You can tell never is being used for emphasis because of the implied comparison. When you find a sentence with never and an implied comparison, make the comparison explicit and parse like normal.

So your one example becomes "I have never been happier than [how happy] I am now". (Of course, the comparison varies depending on what tense is used. "I had never been happier than [how happy] I was then" is how it would be in the past tense.)

It should be easier to understand now.

Both of your examples have a comparative word (happier and better), but there are numerous other variations on how this type of sentence can be formulated. Although I'm trying my best to cover as many as possible, there are likely more out there.

Your examples can be rewritten with so:

I have never been so happy.
It has never been so good.

If you look back, you'll see that "I have never heard anything so clearly" also works this way.

You can also use inversion:

Never have I been happier.
Never has it been better.

For some reason you can also say "I have never been more happy", but not "never been more good". (The best explanation I have for this is "because English".)

  • Thank you. You say that "never" is used for emphasis in the case of a comparison and "so". How about "I have never been happy."? Does the "never" mean "not" or "emphasis"? – Yuuichi Tam Dec 19 '16 at 3:53

I think you mistake a sentence that is made in negative structure for a sentence that has a positive or negative meaning. If you use the word never , the sentence has a negative structure in terms of grammar perspective, but it still can convey a positive or negative sense in common sense.

Let's analyze your sentences with some scenarios.

Imagine you have a happy regular life. You have almost everything you want, but someday something happens, let's say, you meet somebody and fall in love and eventually get married. The day you get married, if somebody asks you " Are you happy now" , you could answer with your sentence

I have never been happier.

Please note, you were happy before you got married but now you are happier. This is happiest moment or day in your life so far.

If you say

I have never been happy.

It means you have never been happy before, and this is first time you feel happy.

The same point of view is true for your second sentence. If we get turn back to your wedding day, you could say:

My life was good but today it is best time so far. or

My life has never been better.

When you use present perfect tense with the word "never" , it is a comparison of your experience you have had so far.

These two your examples has negative structure because it contains the word never. However they have affirmative or positive sense in normal conditions.

On the other hand, if you change adjectives you are using , your sentences could have negative structure and negative meaning as well.

For example :

I have never seen such a bad movie in my life.

Imagine you go to the cinema and watch a movie. You have watched many movies in your life and some of them was bad. However when you compare this movie to previous movies you have watched before, the last movie is worst.

Another example :

I have never lied before.

In this case, while the structure is negative, the meaning is positive in common sense.

  • Thanks. Yes, I mistook the usage of the words. It isn't "positive" or "negative" because I can say "I have never been unhappy". What should I say the different usage of "never"? – Yuuichi Tam Dec 18 '16 at 18:54
  • You could say " I have not been unhappy in my life " or " I have not been successful so far, but I know I will pass the test today" – Mrt Dec 18 '16 at 19:00
  • Thanks. Can I explain that in a few words? – Yuuichi Tam Dec 18 '16 at 19:14
  • You do not have to use " in my life " or " so far" if you use "present perfect tense" because this is what present perfect tense convey and you could say "happy" instead of "double negative : not + unhappy" so you could say " I've been happy" – Mrt Dec 18 '16 at 19:21
  • @Mrt: "I have never been happy in my life" - means not even for once in the entire life? – EngFan Dec 19 '16 at 15:24

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