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What Even is the Deal with "Even"?

A few weeks ago, a new internet meme emerged. Called The English Game, it instructs readers to place the word even anywhere in the following sentence:

She told him that she loved him.

Fun ensues when you discover that the adverb even can modify not just the verbs (as in 2 and 6 below), but also the pronouns (1, 3, 5, 7) and the clausal complement that she loved him (4):

  1. Even she told him that she loved him. (Everyone, including her, told him this.)

  2. She even told him that she loved him. (She didn't just think it or write it; she said it. Or, reading it a different way: In addition to holding his hand, laughing at his jokes, and buying him gifts, she went so far as to tell him that she loved him.)

  3. She told even him that she loved him. (After she'd told everyone else.)

  4. She told him even that she loved him. (She told him a lot of things, including this showstopper.)

  5. She told him that even she loved him. (He thought no one could love him, least of all her, but he was wrong on both counts.)

  6. She told him that she even loved him. (Her feelings went beyond indifference, beyond like, and into love.)

  7. She told him that she loved even him. (She loves everyone, including this most unlovable of individuals.)

Actually, I lied. The English Game actually tells you to insert the word only, not even. Feel free to play again and enjoy imagining all the meaning variants that you get with only. But even is the word I want to talk about, because it has been undergoing some interesting changes recently.

So what's the new thing going on with even? It has to do with questions. First, some background about posing questions that contain even. It's tricky business. Let's compare a couple of questions containing the word even. We'll start with one based on the English Game, but with some actual names to go with the pronouns:

Who even told Fenster that she loved him?

This isn't the most natural-sounding question in the world. We have to imagine a context in which: several people have had interactions with Fenster, we know that someone went so far as to tell Fenster that she loved him, and we want to know who. And then the answer might be:

Lola even told Fenster that she loved him.

It's still a little odd-sounding, but it scrapes by. The main thing is, even makes sense in both the question and the answer.

Now for comparison, take this question, which sounds much more natural and requires very little context:

Who even cares?

And just like we did for the first question, let's imagine an answer:

#Lola even cares.

The octothorpe indicates that this sentence doesn't make sense, even though there's nothing wrong with the syntax. In particular, the even doesn't make sense. In the first example, even placed the declaration of one's love higher on some kind of scale of emotional power or intimacy than other actions, such as holding hands or buying gifts. But what does caring outrank? Not caring?

This difference exists because in negative sentences, even places something at the low end of a scale, not the high end. Because caring is at the low end of the scale when we compare caring about something to thinking about something and to taking action about something, #Lola even cares doesn't make sense, while Lola doesn't even care is fine. In questions, too, even wants to orient toward the low end of a scale, which is why the negative-leaning rhetorical question Who even cares? works. Making even focus on the high end of a scale in a question requires the context to be just right, the way it had to be in Who even told Fenster she loved him?

The new developments with even come in questions like this one:

Who even does that?

This question can be asked about any bizarre activity, whether or not you can imagine it at the low or high end of some scale. In one webpage, titled "13 Illustrations of Some Very Strange American Laws: Who Even Does That?", does that refers to such diverse misdemeanors as putting an ice cream cone in your back pocket, riding a bicycle in a swimming pool, and tickling a woman under the chin with a feather duster. What is even doing in these sentences? It's not placing these activities at the bottom or top of any scale that I can think of. (If you can think of one, by all means leave a comment!)

When I hear a sentence like Who even does that?, I think of it as a rhetorical-question version of the declaration:

I don't even know who does that.

Here, even goes with know who does that, which we can imagine at the bottom of a scale that also might contain personally meeting people who do that, growing up with people who do that, and actually being a person who does that. However, the linguist Mark Liberman probably comes closer to the truth in a Language Log post from 2011, where he takes even to be simply an intensifier in sentences like these. My transformation from Who even does that? to I don't even know who does that is just an ad-hoc device to make the usage fit what I'm familiar with. It's like people who assume that The carpets need vacuumed is an imperfectly uttered The carpets need to be vacuumed, instead of something that's part of someone's grammar as is.

Liberman notes that questions like Who even does that? and What does that even mean? go back about 15 years. The most recent development, though, takes this intensifying even a step farther by putting it with the plainest, least meaningful verb of all: be. On several occasions, I have heard my son and his peers unhesitatingly ask questions like these:

What even is that?
What street even is this?
Who even are you?

Even-is questions like this were the subject of a post in the Stack Exchange English Usage & Grammar site in April of 2013, with a link to a line of dialogue from the horror-drenched video game Amnesia from 2011: What even is that thing?!

Each step in the evolution of even is only a small change in the meaning or usage possibilities. But they add up, until the shared word in She even told him she loved him and What even is that? is hanging onto meanings that are far enough apart that you might just find yourself thinking, "I can't even."

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 26th 2014, 5:44 AM
Comment by: Rob C. (Breda Netherlands)
You could argue that "Who even does that?" scales low on the scale of plausibility. (Or perhaps sometimes probability, such as when 'that' is not some odd misdemeanor, but winning the lottery.)
Saturday September 27th 2014, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Michelle F.
"What even is that?" My students ask this question in the most wonderful contexts, usually when terminally confused. I'm an English teacher, and I don't correct it. It's even acceptable.
Saturday September 27th 2014, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Beat Z. (Luanco Spain)
This is even intriguing! I'm not a native English speaker and this thread really triggered my curiosity. Am I right in assuming that in many of these examples "even" could actually be replaced with "ever would" or "the heck". E.g. Who would ever do that? What the heck is that? I find it even interesting.
Tuesday September 30th 2014, 6:15 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I blame young people! They have changed the way we use the word 'even' in the same way that words such as 'like' and 'whatever' no longer carry just their original meanings. 'Like' in particular, as with 'even' in some of the more abstract cases you've highlighted, have almost become red herrings with little resemblance to the words they once were. In many cases, most notably amongst the young, 'like' or 'even' could really be any word and are simply vehicles to convey surprise, disgust, emphasis or any other augmentation of an utterance to make it more socially appropriate. I don't really blame young people, I find it all quite fascinating.

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