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Usage of “ever” in a negative statement

Yesterday I read a discussion here and I still cannot figure it out. What is the difference between the following:

Nobody ever joined

and

Nobody joined at all

I assume both express that nobody joined, not a single person but I still tend to use "ever" only with present perfect and cannot feel the difference here.

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marked as duplicate by Andrew Leach, Daniel, jwpat7, kiamlaluno, Mitch Jul 19 '12 at 20:39

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No it is NOT a duplicate as this is about difference betweeb "at all" and "ever" in negative statement –  Pietross Jul 7 '12 at 17:56
    
Probably in "Nobody joined at all", "at all" adds more emphasis, since it is a very common intensifier with negative expressions. –  user19148 Jul 7 '12 at 17:57

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

"Nobody ever joined" emphasises that nobody joined throughout some [extended] period of time. As John Lawler says, "ever" here is a temporal (time-related) Negative Polarity Item.

By contrast, "nobody joined at all" (or perhaps, "nobody at all joined") emphasises that not a single person joined. Time isn't relevant - it could be in the context of a one-off membership offer lasting only one day. Here, "at all" (also an NPI) just intensifies the negation already conveyed by "nobody".


Possibly just my personal opinion, but I think sometimes there's a shift in nuance if the verb comes between "nobody" and "at all". For example, to me,

"Nobody at all argues" emphasises that of all the people who might argue, none in fact do.

"Nobody argues at all" emphasises that of all the things people might be doing, they're definitely not doing anything that could be described as "arguing". That perspective doesn't mean anything (at all!) with a verb like "join", which is why I think putting the verb at the end is better for OP's context.

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Right on, bro. I see you been readin the book. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '12 at 0:55
    
@John Lawler: Haha ty. Your answer is the real "nitty-gritty". Until I read it, I had no conscious awareness of the fact that "at all" normally only intensifies existing negations. So, for example, concerned mother could say to sickly child off its food: "Will you not eat a bite at all?". Omitting "not" there sounds dialectal to me (possibly "pseudo-dialect"; for all I know nobody at all ever says that! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '12 at 1:08
    
That's the point, and why I've been pointing to that list of NPIs and triggers so often. Negative Polarity was only discovered around 1970; it certainly isn't anything one learned about in fifth grade. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '12 at 2:13
    
There you go! It's not like nobody ever used NPIs before they were "discovered". So re discusion elsewhere, maybe ELU collectively will discover some previously-unrecognised characteristic of English, and popularise it through the tagging system here! Anyway, I'm seriously thinking Negative Polarity Item should be a tag, even if others eventually decide it's just an excessively specific form of the existing tag negation –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '12 at 2:41
    
Given the splits in other labels, I'd be glad to see some accurate subdivisions. Negation and Negative Polarity are certainly related, but not at all the same thing. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '12 at 3:05

Ever is a Negative Polarity Item ('NPI'; see this recent post for explanation and behavior).

At all is also an NPI, but it's not temporal like ever, it's not a variant of any (like ever), and it has quite a different function.

At all is an NPI intensifier, referring to -- and emphasizing -- total negation of whatever is being negated, rather than referring to the extent of time when something could have happened, but didn't, like ever.

  • Nobody joined at all.
  • Nobody at all showed up for the party.
  • Nobody ever showed up for the party.

  • *Somebody joined at all.

  • *Somebody ever showed up for the party.

There is no logical difference between a negative with and without at all: If he didn't show up for the party at all, then he didn't show up for the party; and vice versa.

I think (and here I'm guessing) that at all is a variant of the Minimal Direct Object NPI structure: eat a bite, drink a drop, give a damn, sleep a wink.

  • If you don't eat a bite, then you don't eat anything, you don't eat at all
  • If you don't even sleep a wink, then you don't sleep at all.

Etc. At all has some interesting syntactic properties; for one thing it can occur by itself, but it plays well with other NPIs (boldfaced) and frequently appears with them, as in this example:

  • The candidates never mentioned it at all. (Neg trigger = never)
  • The candidates never said anything about it at all.
  • I'm surprised he showed up at all. (Neg trigger = surprised)
  • I'm surprised he ever mentioned it at all.
  • They kept her from leaving at all. (Neg trigger = keep from)
  • They kept her from budging at all.
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The wikipedia articles on downward entailment and veridicality have a reference to a paper, "Licensing and sensitivity in polarity items: from downward entailment to nonveridicality", that may be relevant also. –  jwpat7 Sep 1 '12 at 16:39
    
See this article for the origins of the downward-entailment metaphor, among others used for NPIs. –  John Lawler Sep 1 '12 at 16:49

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