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Why are those two sentences seemingly used in an interchangeable way? Example: A daughter is kidnapped. She's reunited with her father. Her father says "I never thought I'd see you again."

Now, to me, these sentences mean two very different things:

I thought I'd never see you again. - It occurred to me that I may never look upon you again.

I never thought I'd see you again. - It never occurred to me to think about seeing you.

Am I wrong in my assumptions on these phrases? If not, why are they used in such an interchangeable manner all the time?

  • You are not wrong. The 2 sentences mean different things as your definitions prove. I have heard them used interchangeably also and can only say that if I was adamant to mean one version over another, I might choose a different phrase to express that thought - and not have it be confused by these two sentences. – Kristina Lopez Aug 21 '13 at 18:11
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Human language is almost never as precise as we would perhaps prefer. A precise analysis of the two sentence yields, as you point out, two possible distinctive meanings. But I cannot imagine anyone actually making the distinction -- they are for all intents and purposes the same sentence.

As to why this might be so, I cannot answer. But as a 61-year constant user of English I can certify I and virtually everyone else would not find these two sentences to mean two very different things.

Addendem:

Consider the alternatives: “I thought I'd never see you again” vs. “I never thought I'd see you again”.

The former suggests that an active thought existed about never seeing the person again, the latter suggests no thought about the subject of seeing the person again even occurred. The problem is related to not thinking about red elephants. Can it truly never have crossed your mind that you wouldn't see the person again? It implies an absence of thought that probably cannot exist.

I am a computer programmer, so I know I can write code that is that is that exclusive, e.g. the computer will never consider that A == B if I don't write it. Human beings are not programmable. If you apparently blew yourself up in my presence, I cannot avoid an active thought relating to not seeing you again. If I merely hear that you blew yourself up, the same. The only case in which I am not going have such an active thought is if I don't hear anything about your fate. It's a null program in that case, and I am also not going to think the first thought either.

Off-topic: does your code really suck? If so, why?

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  • I take it you mean both are usually used to mean "I thought I'd never see you again," though "I never thought I'd see you again" logically means something different. I'd go further and say that the illogical usage is more common than the logical one. It's probably due to cadence considerations. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 21 '13 at 22:50
  • See my addendum to my answer. – Cyberherbalist Aug 22 '13 at 0:16
  • Yes - it's a different situation from the following: "I never said / told her he'd passed his driving test." v "I said / told her he'd never passed his driving test." Here, the two alternatives are equally viable, and the meaning has to follow the logical interpretation. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 22 '13 at 6:59
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Many people would say that the sentences are equivalent - or "mostly equivalent". The thing to do is look at what the "never" modifies: in the first sentence, "never see"; in the second, "never thought".

In everyday speech, either one would carry the meaning. In the example, what the father really meant was, "I thought I'd never see you again." (Because you might have been dead.)

Suppose, however, that the daughter had run away from home, many years ago, and taken residence in France, Now, her father is on vacation in France and happens to see her in the market. In this case, "I never thought I'd see you again". (Because I'd given up hope of seeing you again.)

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  • You're examples are essentially the same as mine. – PiousVenom Aug 21 '13 at 19:20
  • "Mostly equivalent". Hmmm. Would that be something like "Mostly harmless"? – Cyberherbalist Aug 22 '13 at 0:22
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Your interpretations are correct. Never is modifying two different verbs. There is a difference between never seeing and never thinking.

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  • I agree, but who sticks to such precision in their daily speech? Precise language would probably contribute towards human understanding, but I have noticed in my interactions that people easily misunderstand what I thought I said quite precisely. It can be maddening. – Cyberherbalist Aug 22 '13 at 0:31

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