truer words

Discussion in 'English Only' started by bokonon, Jul 21, 2006.

  1. bokonon Member

    Serbian, Serbia
    truer words were never spoken


    truer words have never been spoken ?

    Personally, I'd go for present perfect, although I believe to have heard this phrase in simple past on quite a few occasions. What would you opt for?

  2. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    Interesting. I'm more familiar with the first, but when forced to actually think about it, I agree with you. The second makes more sense to me.
  3. mgarizona

    mgarizona Senior Member

    Phoenix, AZ
    US - American English
    True enough, but as the sentiment expressed is, let's face it, rarely literally true, why gum up the works with grammar?
  4. french4beth

    french4beth Senior Member

    They both mean pretty much the same thing - the only possible difference in my mind is if you were referring to something that was said at a much earlier time (were), or something that was said very recently (have never been).
  5. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    "Truer words were never spoken" is more proverbial-- the present-perfect version is categorical, and seems to pertain to words about anything, not just the subject at hand.

    The expression usually immediately follows a specific statement, a completed action (grammatically considered). "Truer words were never spoken" is a direct response of agreement to the specific statement, and the simple past is needed for symmetry or tense agreement.

    If someone went on a real tangent, covering a panoply of subjects in uniquely definitive fashion-- let's say it left you with a feeling like the crowd must've felt when they first heard the Beatitudes? Then an awe-struck encomium like "truer words have never been spoken" might not sound hyped-up or overblown.

    To me the present-perfect version is jarringly unidiomatic. That tense in general is nowhere near as commonplace in AE as it seems to be in European languages.

    If you want not to be easily and immediately identified as a non-native speaker, I'd recommend taking well-established phrases as axiomatic, accepting their apparent illogic, and using them as templates for learning similar forms of idiomatic speech.
  6. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I think that the simple past often replaces the past perfect in sentences with the words with 'ever' and 'never', and in these cases the two options can be synonymous. I think the simple past sounds perfectly idiomatic, if perhaps a little elevated in style.
    Was there ever a planet between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter? = Has there ever been a planet between the obits of Mars and Jupiter?
    She never found the bracelet = She has never found the bracelet (assuming she is still alive).

    Why are the simple past and past perfect synonymous in these cases and in few others? My hypothesis is that it is not necessary to use the past perfect, because the sense of the past perfect, namely 'until now', is perfectly well conveyed by the word 'ever' or 'never'.

    According to this page, an early version of the proverb is "There is many a true Word spoken in jest." (James Kelly A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs Explained and Made Intelligible to the English Reader 1721)
  7. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Excellent point.

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