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I recently heard this on a TV Drama where one character, who had been left at the altar by her fiance, finally spoke to him again years after the incident.

I thought that the phrase:

"You were the best thing that never happened to me"

could be interpreted in two ways:

  • The "best thing" refers to their successful relationship before he left her at the altar, and the "never happened" refers to how their marriage never happened.
  • The sentence means that of all the things that "never happened" (i.e them getting married) it was the "best thing" for her and she is glad things turned out that way.

Essentially if this were to have been said to someone, do you think it would be taken as a compliment reminiscing on what they once had, or an insult in saying that they are glad that something further never happened?

If you would like to take an alternative approach to the question, is the opposite of this phrase:

  • You were the worst thing that ever happened to me
  • You were the best thing that ever happened to me

Cheers!

  • If this were said to someone, it would be taken as a compliment meaning 'If only we'd actually had a meaningful relation ...'. A rueful retrospection. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 2 '18 at 17:20
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    Perhaps you would take it so, @EdwinAshworth, but to suppose that everyone would take it so seems hasty. The concept of the best thing that never happened, like the biggest thing that never existed, is irreducibly paradoxical, and the ambiguity is accordingly irreducible too. – Brian Donovan Jan 2 '18 at 18:55
  • @Brian Donovan I think that pragmatics make the interpretation I suggest far more likely (though not, as you say, obligatory) – see Chaim's answer. And this parallel from the internet: "I've always dreamed of having a friend like her, and I feel lucky every day that we somehow met and got along freshman year. She was the best friend I never had, and now she's the best friend I've ever had ...". But is there a reason why you haven't close-voted here on POB grounds? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 3 '18 at 1:21
  • @EdwinAshworth, I do not recall ever close-voting anything on POB grounds. Note my meta question on that subject. – Brian Donovan Jan 3 '18 at 16:26
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I agree that this line of dialog is ambiguous, and I don’t think we can really remove the ambiguity; context might do more to resolve it than a close reading of the single sentence could. However if we are construing these words alone, it seems to me more natural to take them in a flattering sense.

In the first place it’s a less forced reading of the words. “You were the best thing -- you’re really great -- that never happened to me -- you never married me.”

If you try to reverse that meaning then the “best thing” is not “You” but something more complicated: “Your not-happening-to-me is the best thing that ever didn’t happen to me.”

In the second place, the favorable sense seems plausible, the sort of thing that everyone thinks. I’ve led a pretty fortunate life, and so have all the people I know. If you asked me to list the best things that have ever happened to me, my personal relationships would fill many of the top slots.

On the other hand, if you asked me to list some of the worst things that ever could have happened to me, nothing that ever did happen to me would be on the list at all. Almost all of us privileged people know of people in the world today facing such enormous tragedy and suffering that it would just be silly to say that a marriage you believed in, to the point of actually waiting at the altar, would have been the worst thing that ever could have happened to you. So the pejorative construction of the sentence is fairly mind-boggling

Of course the character in the soap may mean the pejorative sense as an exaggeration. Or she may be talking with Charles Manson and mean the expression in a plain sense. But all else being plausible, I would bet on the favorable sense.

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It's an obvious play on the phrase "You are the best thing that ever happened to me", but whereas that is meant as a compliment, the woman here means it as an insult. The speaker is expressing happiness that the wedding didn't proceed as planned, perhaps because she subsequently found a someone better, or discovered a character flaw that she didn't see before in the man she is speaking to, or any number of reasons. In any case, she's saying in essence "I'm glad I didn't marry you, because my life is better now than it would have been with you."

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  • This is the correct answer, with the caveat that it in some cases it's still somewhat flattering: this jilted fiancée certainly just means that the wedding falling through turned out to be a blessing in disguise but others might use the same phrase to compliment the best lover they had before marriage, albeit in the knowledge he would've been a lousy husband and they're better off with their current guy/gal. – lly Jun 11 '18 at 6:31

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