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What does "ever" in the following sentence mean?

Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Source

So Hume is about to die and this guy Boswell starts to talk to him about afterlife. And, we know that Hume was one of the biggest skeptics regarding religion. So the topic in the time is not ever (=at all?) tactful (=polite/sensitive/timely?). Is this what "ever tactful" means?

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    In this idiomatic construction, ever means 'always' and does not require a negative. – John Lawler Oct 24 '17 at 15:47
  • @JohnLawler So it says Boswell was always impolite? – Sasan Oct 24 '17 at 15:50
  • The one who close-voted, please say your reason. – Sasan Oct 24 '17 at 15:51
  • As a conjunction, ever is simply a substitute for always. There is no negation. So it says he was always polite. – John Lawler Oct 24 '17 at 18:47
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In this context, ever means as tactful as ever or as tactful as usual. Sometimes this is used facetiously, and judging by the source material, it is being used that way here. Boswell should not be discussing the afterlife at this time, yet chooses to in order to make Hume uncomfortable. In this case, tactful really means not tactful.

Example:

Barry was a really nice guy. Ever friendly, he found it easy to get along with his co-workers.

Example 2 (facetious):

Ever the respectful student, Barry said to his teacher, "You're an idiot!".

  • So is it tactful to ask about after life from a dying philosopher who does not believe in afterlife ? – Sasan Oct 24 '17 at 16:17
  • No I think you are right. I'll edit my answer. – Academiphile Oct 24 '17 at 16:19
  • Initially I read the source as Boswell tactfully bringing up afterlife, in a way that Hume would still be able to repent, even on his death bed. – Academiphile Oct 24 '17 at 16:21
  • Here I would also like to know your view about the precise meaning of "tactful". Timely? Sensitive? Polite? – Sasan Oct 24 '17 at 16:23
  • I edited to reflect this. – Academiphile Oct 24 '17 at 17:12
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Without context beyond the sentence, it would mean that Boswell is always tactful. It may even imply that Boswell being tactful is a consistent, known aspect of his personality.

Opening a sentence with the clause

Ever adjective

is a common method of interjecting some truth about a person as it relates to the subject of a sentence.

Given your context, however, (that Hume is a skeptic, and would most likely not wish to discuss the afterlife at this time) this idiom is being used ironically. With this context, the phrase 'Ever tactful' shifts meaning to

Boswell is frequently not tactful, and certainly is not behaving as such in the example about to be given.

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It often equates to 'always', but I think that there is also a weaker meaning equivalent to 'continuously' or 'extremely consistently' in a temporally bounded way, but far beyond the frame of reference.

This might seem like an artificial distinction, but I think there is something qualitatively different about the following examples:

Ever loving, Yahweh...

Ever the optimist, Nigel...

The implication is that such characteristics are part of the fundamental and unchanging nature of a Judeo-Christian type god, for all time. But when speaking about a human, the optimism may not have been exhibited prior to, say, adulthood and could reasonably be expected to disappear, just not in the near future.

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