Learn English – Use of “ever” in non-negated sentence


Is the sentence grammatically correct:

I do recall ever seeing my mother in the light of day.

Best Answer

No, it's not grammatical. It violates the rule of English grammar that forbids use of a Negative Polarity Item outside a negative context.

From the article on "Negatives and Negative Polarity" in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences:

[English has] a large, complex, and diverse system of Negative Polarity Items (‘NPIs’ – like ever in He didn’t ever see it), which felicitously occur only in the scope of some negative element (*He ever saw it). The details of what ‘scope’ actually is, and of how and which and why NPIs can occur within it, vary among specific negative and NPI elements.

Negative polarity is a variety of ‘negative concord’ (e.g French Je ne regrette rien, lit.‘I don’t regret nothing’; Yiddish Ix hob nit kin gelt, lit. ‘I don’t have no money’), but instead of negative concord, which uses negative elements in the focus of another negative, negative polarity uses other, non-negative elements, which can sometimes pick up ‘negativity by association’ and occur without overt negative (could care less < couldn’t care less).

‘NPI’ is a term applied to lexical items, fixed phrases, or syntactic construction types that demonstrate unusual behavior around negation. NPIs might be words or phrases that occur only in negative-polarity contexts (fathom, in weeks) or have an idiomatic sense in such contexts (not too bright, drink a drop); or they might have a lexical affordance that only functions in such contexts (need/dare (not) reply); or a specific syntactic rule might be sensitive to negation, like Subject-Verb Inversion with Adverb Fronting in

  • Never have I seen such a thing
  • *Ever have I seen such a thing.
  • *Frequently have I seen such a thing.

Ever is the suppletive word that English uses instead of the nonexistent *anywhen. Like any and all its other compounds, it's an NPI. Using an NPI without negation in a sentence produces an ungrammatical sentence [an asterisk before a sentence indicates that it is ungrammatical], e.g:

  • *He has arrived yet.
  • *I like that at all.
  • *He bothered closing the door.
  • *She's all that smart.
  • *This will take long.
  • *I know but what he's right.
  • *I can help thinking of how she looked.