Apparently, "I never recognize 90% of the people" means that each time you can only recognize less than 10 percent of the people. (Cf. comments under this video.) My naive syntactic preconceptions tells me that never means "there is no time/occasion, such that ..." which would tell you that the sentence should mean "There was no occasion (and never will be), on which I recognized 90% (or more) of the people", in contradiction to the apparently prevalent interpretation of the sentence. Somehow, the 90% came to refer to the number of people you don't recognize.

I would like to understand how this works exactly. Interestingly, the German literal translation "Ich erkenne nie 90% der Leute" doesn't work in the former sense and would rather be interpreted as conveying the "logical" sense. So what is the grammatical difference in these two superficially identically structured sentences?

Edit: I'm not interested in stylistic recommendations, as I understand that it is colloquial and ambiguous and therefore should be avoided in formal writing. But as it is a phrase some native speakers produce spontaneously and most others seem to have no problem parsing it the intended way (at least given an appropriate context), I would like to understand how the syntax gets reanalyzed syntactically to yield that meaning. but would like to understand

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    This is a very interesting question. The simple answer is that the sentence has two possible, and entirely different meanings. The first is a casual off-the-cuff meaning, which is that the most number of people you ever recognise is 10%. However, a strict interpretation of the sentence is that you always recognise something less than 90%. The register and context of saying it, will be the only way of telling which meaning applies. The first, or idiomatic meaning, is the more likely. Anyone intending the literal meaning would need to say it very carefully and controlledly.
    – WS2
    Dec 18, 2017 at 19:49
  • "I never recognize 90% of the people" -> 90/100 are accounted for as not recognised. There's another 10 of them who we don't really know about, and can infer are recognised, but it could be less than 10.
    – Hugo
    Dec 18, 2017 at 19:50
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    @Hugo But don't you see what the OP's saying? It could mean that he always recognises a large number, sometimes as many as 89%. But try as he might he never reaches 90%.
    – WS2
    Dec 18, 2017 at 19:56
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    It is safe to say that the meaning is ambiguous. When reviewing my own writing my mantra is, "Say what you mean." I would advise rewriting such a sentence to make the meaning clear. Dec 18, 2017 at 20:27
  • @MikeJRamsey56 But you hear the idiomatic form on a daily basis - "I never recognise 90% of them". That almost never means what it is logically and strictly saying. So are you suggesting people should stop saying it?
    – WS2
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:01

2 Answers 2


never is not being used in its literal sense to mean "at no time". It's instead being used to indicate a negative state that persists through all time. So it's short for

At all times, I don't recognize 90% of the people.

or more succinctly

I don't ever recognize 90% of the people.


Never means "there is no time such that". While the obvious interpretation of "I never recognize 90% of the people" would be "There is no time such that I recognize as many as 90% of the people present", it is not too far of a leap to interpret it as "There is no time such that there isn't a set of 90% of everyone present which I do not recognize anyone within."

What makes this expression strange is that it takes two negative expressions and deletes them both, without making sure to flip things connected to the removed negatives. It might be put better as "I never recognize 10% of the people", but a smaller number can make the problem seem smaller. This style of speech is apparently based on psychology more than on reason.

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