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Linguistic Short: The Word "Never"

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


One of my favorite channels on YouTube is by a linguist called Martin DeCoder.

His professional specialty is forensic linguistics applied to "statement and conversation analysis." The entire premise of this field is that people cannot avoid telling the truth, "even when or precisely because they are trying to conceal it."

The reason for this is that lying causes the brain physiological stress; at the same time, the brain tries to feed one the most comfortable way to deliver the lie. But we don't need to go any further into that here.

DeCoder has been analyzing Chris Watts interrogation and prison confession videos, in order to highlight the deceptiveness of Watts, the ways in which he tells on himself as he lies to investigators.

In one of his interrogations, Chris Watts has occasion to say that he "has never cheated on her," meaning his wife, Shanann. We, of course, now know that he had been carrying on an extramarital relationship with Nicole Kessinger.

Now, here's the point for this paper:

Chris Watts said that he "never cheated on" his wife.

Martin DeCoder wants us to know that Chris Watts is not saying, here, that he did not cheat on his wife.

This notion is counterintuitive until we really think about what the word never means in common usage. Again, it does not mean: absolute zero.

Let's say that there is a man and woman married for ten years. The wife says to the husband: "You never listen to me!"

She is not saying: "There has never been a single occurrence in the history of our entire relationship in which you have listened to me."

If there had actually been absolute zero occurrences in which the husband listened to his wife (who would have been his girlfriend or lover prior to marriage), its hard to see, under normal circumstances, how the woman would have ever even consented to marry the man in the first place.

This fact would be easily clarified with the addition of the word anymore. Let's try it.

"You never listen to me anymore."

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Now we understand that there had been a time when the man did indeed "listen" to the woman who would become his wife. "Never," then, represents an alienation away from a previous ideal or generally positive condition, which, in this case, is the fact that the man used to listen to the woman who would become his wife.

When Chris Watts said: "I never cheated on" his wife, Shanann,... he is NOT saying: "At no point in our relationship did I cheat on my wife."

I will argue that what we have going on here is "reverse alienation."

In the case of the first example I gave, we have a starting positive condition leading to its alienation in the form of "you never listen to me (anymore)."

In the case of Chris Watts's statement, his thought process appears to be operating in reverse of this. He appears to taking his starting point of wrongdoing and retreating back into his, presumably, previous ocean of marital and premarital relational faithfulness to Shanann.

The point to hold on to is this: The word "never" is not used to mean "absolute zero occurrence of X" in common usage. Never is a term of alienation! Either negative alienation moving from a state of "listening" to one's wife to "never listening" to her; or reverse alienation moving from a point of betrayal to a previous ocean of right behavior, which is Chris Watts saying that he "never cheated" on his wife.

"John almost never drinks hard alcohol before 5 PM."

The "almost" here, makes clear, that "never" is not meant as "absolute zero occurrences." Anytime John does partake before the five o'clock hour, it is a rarity indeed, but it does happen!

Never has both a character protection and character indictment function, depending on how the word is used.

"Never," as it is used in the example above, is meant to tell us that John is a certain praiseworthy type of person who is strong and disciplined, as opposed to weak and self-indulgent... aka, the type of person who would drink before five o'clock.

Now, Chris Watts said that he "never cheated on..." his wife and that he "fully expects that she never cheated on me." This is so, Watts said, because he has "always been a trustworthy person and she has always been a trustworthy person..."

We see, then, in this context that the word "never" is used to affirm the trustworthy character of both Watts and his wife, Shanann.

Watts's incidental pairing of the words never and always is very interesting. It is precisely this pair of words that couples therapists say that romantic partners should NOT use when arguing.

In other words, formulations like: "You never... do this..." or "You always... do that...," are prohibited because they are general and vague and unfairly all-encompassing. I call those words: The Eternal Ubiquitous Indictment.

Healthy communication between romantic partners is best served by formulations such as: "When you don't notice when I wear a new dress, it makes me feel ..." or "When you use my childhood fears to hurt me, for example..., I feel...."

In other words, it is best to phrase your critiques specifically and surgically.

Thank you for reading!

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