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From NPR: Obama's State Of The Union And Your Economic Reality

OBAMA: Average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all.

What's the meaning of "ever" here? I've looked the word up in the dictionary, but couldn't find a proper definition. Is it only used to emphasize the context?

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This is the first definition given in the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary:

1 used in negative sentences and questions, or sentences with if to mean ‘at any time’

Nothing ever happens here.
Don't you ever get tired?
If you're ever in Miami, come and see us.
‘Have you ever thought of changing your job?’ ‘No, never/No I haven't.’
‘Have you ever been to Rome?’ ‘Yes, I have, actually. Not long ago.’
She hardly ever
(= almost never) goes out.
We see them very seldom, if ever.

(informal) I'll never ever do that again!

And this is the second

2 used for emphasis when you are comparing things

It was raining harder than ever.
It's my best ever score.

The definition ‘at any time’ in the first definition continues in the second, which is what is in play here—Obama is drawing a comparison (‘more’) between how hard Americans work today and how hard they worked in the past:

So: “Americans are working more than [they worked] at any time [i.e., any time in the past] just to get by.”

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You want to look at the phrase

more than ever.

That means that something is true more now then at any time before (or after).

So

Americans are working more than ever.

Means that Americans are now working more than they did at any time before. So they work more now than they did last year, or a hundred years ago.

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As you might be knowing, ever can mean "always" or "at any time". "More than ever" is used to imply that the action has been carried with more intensity of frequency then before. For example, if I never completed more than half my homework, but today completed three-quaters of it, I would have completed my homework more than ever.

  • With something progressive like a homework assignment, I think most would be more likely to say, "I've completed more of my homework than before," meaning that you're closer to completing it. I don't think "more than ever" works very well in your example context. – J.R. Feb 3 '14 at 20:30

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