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Nosey Flynn was sitting up in his usual corner of Davy Byrne's and, when he heard the story, he stood Farrington a half-one, saying it was as (1) smart a thing as (2) ever (3) he heard.
(James Joyce, Dubliners)

The meanings of the (1), (2), and (3) seem like:

(1) as : “to the same degree or amount” (Webster’s Learner’s, adverb, 1) : this meaning requires “indirect complement (CGEL’s term)”, i.e. as ever ~.
(2) as : “used to make comparisons” (Webster’s Learner’s, conjunction, 1a) : in “as A as ever B,” A has equal importance as ever B.
(3) ever : “used as an intensive” (Webster, 3) : the best

so, I suspect the highlighted part means: ‘it was as smart a thing as the smartest ones he’d heard.’ Is that a way to understand the construction?

  • 2
    Why the downvote? Despite the fact that this question may seem quite simplistic (and as such perhaps a better fit for English Language Learners), it actually does contain some interesting points and archaic language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 1 '13 at 9:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, Thank you very much. I've just read the 'ever' in CGEL - non-affirmative item in comparative constructions - and so yours is quite understandable. – Listenever Sep 1 '13 at 9:58
  • @JanusBahsJacquet There is a degree of prejudice against 'literary' texts at ELL, especially texts written more than about 20 years ago. The prejudice is grounded in a fear that learning will be irreparably damaged by exposure to English that is not 'everyday' and ELL will by publishing such English abandon its fundamental identity. – StoneyB Sep 1 '13 at 13:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Why is the language in the question considered archaic? – TrevorD Sep 1 '13 at 23:30
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    @TrevorD, if not archaic then at least quite formal and literary. I can think of few people who would in natural speech use sentence patterns like this—I myself would certainly always say, “As smart as anything he’d ever heard” in normal speech. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 2 '13 at 7:08
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Your analyses of (1) and (2) are both correct. They do indeed refer to the ‘as X as Y (is)’ construction.

Your analysis on (3), however, is not quite right. ‘Ever’ when used as an intensifier is confined (as far as I can think of) to three specific circumstances:

  1. With comparatives: When used before a comparative adjective, ever intensifies the comparativeness of the adjective (not the meaning of the adjective itself) and means something like ‘increasingly’: “He had to borrow ever larger sums of money to cover his gambling debts”. [Registers: all]

  2. With ‘so’: The phrase ‘ever so’ cannot really be split up or analysed, semantically: it just means ‘very’: “Oh, he was ever so bright as a child”. [Registers: informal, colloquial]

  3. With interrogatives/indefinites: When used after an interrogative or indefinite pronoun/determiner (often cliticised), ‘ever’ intensifies the meaning of the interrogative/indefinite: “However are we going to do that?” – “I can see nothing whatever”. [Registers: mostly somewhat formal; not common in informal or colloquial use]

In other cases, ‘ever’ has a more literal meaning: ‘at any time’ (used in questions and negatives), or ‘at all times’ (used in positive statements, somewhat rarer than the negative/interrogative use).

This is also the case in the sentence you quote: it means ‘at any time in the past’ here, and it refers to the verb, ‘heard’. The placement of the adverb before the subject and verb is rather formal and somewhat archaic, but may still occasionally be seen even in Modern English. The verb is in the simple past tense in this example, which is also somewhat archaic—in current English, you would usually expect to see a pluperfect there. Thus, the sentence can be recast with no difference in meaning as:

[H]e stood Farrington a half-one, saying it was as smart a thing as he had ever heard.

The construction “(that) ever [subject] [verb]” is quite common in older literature and folk songs; for example, the traditional Scottish and Irish song The Parting Glass uses it several times (with ‘ever’ being contracted to its poetic/archaic variant ‘e’er’):

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm e’er I’ve done,
Alas! it was to none but me.

Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay.

These examples also show that the simple past tense and the perfect/pluperfect are fairly interchangeable in this particular construction.

  • There's also the fact that at least one type of equative triggers NPIs (like ever), as do comparatives and superlatives. – John Lawler Dec 31 '13 at 20:52
  • @John: I'm not going to repeat the entire comment here, but can you shed any light on what seems to me the rather strange effect of including the word any in my comment to a closely-related question asked later? – FumbleFingers Jan 4 '14 at 23:02
  • I don't see what's strange about it. Ever means at any time; it's just a variant of any, like elder is a variant of older. The construction is an "at least as ... as" equative; the constituent introduced by the second as is a negative environment, so NPIs can occur. – John Lawler Jan 4 '14 at 23:22
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    @John, I believe he is referring to the fact that “This is as good a film as the Coen Brothers have ever made” implicitly states that ‘this’ is one of the Coen Brothers’ films; whereas “This is as good a film as any the Coen Brothers have ever made” does not (if anything, it vaguely implies that this is not one of the Coen Brothers’ films). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 5 '14 at 2:43
  • Using the perfect implies it; using the past doesn't. Or at least needn't; intonation would normally decide, as it usually does. That's the problem with written sentences; you're not getting all the information you need to interpret it. – John Lawler Jan 5 '14 at 5:24
1

You’re right. It means that he had never heard anything smarter.

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