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http://www.onestopenglish.com/community/your-english/word-grammar/your-english-word-grammar-even/156431.article gives some examples of correct use of "even" as an adverb to indicate that something is surprising or unexpected:-

"She even forgot my birthday"

"He can’t even spell his own name!"

However, using "even" with "to be" results in some odd-sounding sentences:-

"Will you even be there?"

"Who even is she?"

And, (famously?)

"What even is that thing?"

Adverbs usually come after auxiliary verbs, but in this case it doesn't seem like moving the adverb makes a more pleasing sentence:-

"What is even that thing?"

"What is that thing even?"

Is there a correct way those sentences could even be formed, or should "even" not even be used with "to be"?

As an additional point, these formations seem very common - especially colloquially or in writing on the internet. Is there anywhere I would be able to investigate the frequency of usage and perhaps find some early examples?


For anyone interested, I found these:-

Suggesting that the use of "even" in this context is new/wrong, rather than specifically the pairing with "to be", e,g:-

"What does that even mean?"

"How does that even work?"

"Is that even a thing?"

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What is that thing even supposed to be? –  choster Apr 8 '13 at 15:59
That's a tricky one. I think the appropriateness of "even" has to do with whether there's an implied comparison. E.g., "She not only forgot my email address, she even forgot my birthday!" It can be used with "to be" if there's a comparison implied, e.g., "He's even a tenured professor!" (you thought he'd be just a visiting lecturer). "Will you even be there?" sounds fine to me, implying "I'm afraid you not only won't participate, you won't show up at all." –  gmcgath Apr 8 '13 at 16:35
"Will you even be there?" sound fine to me. –  Henry Feb 17 at 18:21
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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

OED's entry for the usage OP is concerned with says...

Intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition implied (= French même). Prefixed (in later use often parenthetically postfixed) to the particular word, phrase, or clause, on which the extreme character of the statement or supposition depends.

It also goes on to say...

This use, now the prevailing one in Eng., is foreign to the other Germanic langs. It is rare in purely dialectal speech, and (though a natural development of 8) seems not to have arisen before the 16th c.

(OED's definition 8 refers to a largely obsolete usage where even = ‘namely’, ‘that is to say’, ‘just’, ‘nothing else but’, ‘to be sure’, ‘forsooth’).

Note that although they're very similar in meaning, there's a slight distinction between...

1: She even forgot my birthday
2: She forgot even my birthday

In #1, it's implied she performed other different actions besides forgetting my birthday (maybe she ate my last Rolo, for example). In this case, even modifies the entire phrase forgot my birthday.

But #2 more specifically implies that she forgot other things (not necessarily even relating to me).

There's nothing at all "odd" about OP's "Will you even be there?" (it's emphasising that not only might you not do something when you're "there" - there's some question as to whether you will be there at all).

OP's "Who even is she?" and "What even is that thing?" are highly unlikely constructions that would probably be considered unacceptable/substandard by most native speakers. The reason for this is that even never really modifies the verb to be at all - it modifies whatever comes next, as in...

"Can't you even be polite?" (If you can't be/act how I want, can you at least be polite?).
"I can't even be bothered to reply" (I can't do much at all, specifically not bother to reply).

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Good answer. I'd just add that I don't consider even to be an adverb. It is often a pragmatic marker (annoyance) ( in She even forgot my birthday!) but always has the extreme-indicating sense the OED eloquently describes. It usually 'modifies' a noun group or identifier (Even she forgot my birthday; She forgot even my birthday / my birthday) or a clause (She even forgot my birthday) but can 'modify' a verb (He slapped him, he punched him - he even kicked him). However, this isn't a central adverbial function, saying something further about the action itself, but contextualising it. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 9 '13 at 11:06
@Edwin: Borrowing from Johnson, I suspect that classifying words as adverbs is sometimes the last refuge of a desperate grammarian. They should just man up and admit that even is in a class of its own (as, in the final analysis, are quite a few other words/usages! :) –  FumbleFingers Apr 9 '13 at 13:04
There are a few 'multi-purpose' (or 'multi-positional') 'contextualising modifiers', often grouped together as limiting modifiers: only, even, almost, nearly, hardly, merely, scarcely, barely, simply, just, & but (in he was but a youth). But I don't think even fulfils a limiting role. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 9 '13 at 18:48
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Use of EVEN...!

By :Santosh Thapa Magar (resident of Rupandehi, Nepal)

  1. She didn't even see me.(In love- She doesn't love me.)

  2. It is hot even in winter.(It means there must have been very hot in summer.)

  3. Even a child can understand. (It means adults must have understood.)

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Those things don't mean what you think they mean. –  Matt Эллен Dec 10 '13 at 10:42
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