Almost Never Say Always

I’m never a person big on making New Year’s resolutions. That’s probably a good thing, since it is mid-April. I always complain that my life is still in the same ol’ rut. Yet, I never seem to change the habits that hold me back almost every time.

This year, I’m concentrating on removing three words from my vernacular, and you should, too. Each word is detrimental to effective communication.

The words are “almost,” “always,” and “never”.

All three words are considered adverbs, and describe in what manner something occurs. Those of you who write or speak –– either professionally or for pleasure –– know that adverbs are on their way out. Almost.

But let’s get back to the subject. (I’m always doing that.)

Almost, always, and never are not just any adverbs. Grammarians call these words “adverbs of frequency”. They let you know how regularly something happens. But do they?

In the case of “almost,” nothing really occurs at all. For instance, if you tell your friend that you “almost got a speeding ticket,” you didn’t get a speeding ticket. You anticipated getting a speeding ticket, but didn’t.

Almost never happens.

Almost get your taxes finished? Nope, you didn’t. Almost complete the daily crossword? Better look again.

By using “almost” in our conversations, we are nearly always (oops) inviting conflict. It is a means for denying something without admitting that we failed to live up to our commitments. For instance, lets’ take a look at Johnny:

“Did you clean up your room, Johnny?” mom asked.


Trust me, Johnny is not going to get a pat on the back for this. The pat will be a little lower, and significantly harder.

Similarly, the word “never” provokes conflict, and isn’t needed in a sentence. The use often opposes, or at least camouflages the intended meaning of the communication.

When the wife screams at her husband, “You never take the trash out when I ask you!”, she knows that the declaration is unlikely to be true. Surely somewhere along the way, hubby actually did what he was asked to do.

What she really means is that, “When I see the trash heaping over the can, I feel like you don’t respect my wishes, and don’t love me anymore.” I’m sure that her husband loves and respects her. He’s just tired. Okay, he’s lazy. But the point is still the same. The man can start in tomorrow, take the trash out every time, and the whole meaning of her original lament is lost.

Never assumes that nothing can change. Never do that.

Three years ago I had the most amazing woman tell me that she wanted to marry me, and that she’d always love me. Four weeks later, I was living under the interstate overpass, reading Keats to stray cats.

I can still remember how I felt when she said, “I never want to see you again.”

That’s because almost, always, and never aren’t simply linguistic conveniences, they are emotional add-ons. In today’s world, where we value histrionics over history, emotion over comprehension, we should be careful how we use words that aren’t even needed.

In that way, people will always say what they mean, and audiences will never be confused by what people say.

Well, almost.

– John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.