Seeing as this post has been linked to by a popular culture site, I’d thought it should be suitably introduced.

Alan Bennett spoke of how low-culture provided an ‘antidote’ to the ‘high-culture’ of ‘general studies’. He praised knowledge that was ‘specific’ and often provided an antidote of ¬†‘sheer uncalcuated silliness’ to the serious business of learning.

With this in mind, one homework I set all my classes is the classic ‘how many different ways can you emphasise the sentence¬†I never said she stole my money‘? Of course, there is more to defining a sentence than simply suggesting stresses on single words. However, it is both an entertaining and a useful gauge on a student’s ability to consider how meaning can change with purposeful inference. As I say to all my students, if they only read fiction for the narrative, they might as well watch a film: it’s easier.

However, if they want to appreciate the rich duality (and more) of meaning in fiction (and human interaction), then nothing beats a book.

For each version of the sentence, the word being emphasised is in brackets (like this.) The meaning is then given after the equals sign, along with implications for the speaker and/or the accused.


(I) never said she stole my money

Someone else said the money was stolen, and I implicitly agree with him/her.

I (never) said she stole my money

The idea that I would accuse that specific person of stealing money is outrageous. (As the emphasis here puts the speaker in a defensive stance, it risks negative consequences for the speaker if the accusation is questioned.)

I never (said) she stole my money

I might have implied that she stole my money, but it can’t be proven that I said that I did. So there.

I never said (she) stole my money

My money was stolen. Although I cannot prove it was her who stole it, I acknowledge that I implied it. (And the implication of doing so is enough to, probably, damn her).

I never said she (stole) my money

I said that she has my money. Whether it was stolen or ‘accidentally borrowed’ isn’t made entirely clear. (Most like used because the speaker wants to backtrack from the consequences of an explicit accusation, but wants to make an allegation nevertheless.)

I never said she stole (my) money

Some money has been stolen by her, but not necessarily mine. (Here the accusation alone is enough to damn to accused, without specifying who owned the money. Implies the speaker is pious.)

I never said she stole my (money)

She might have stolen my money, but she has perhaps stolen something more serious, too. (My trust, my dignity, my heart…)