"all but" = all of; a mere"

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Mar 6 14:56:58 UTC 2008

On Mar 5, 2008, at 7:15 PM, Larry Horn wrote:

> At 5:54 PM -0800 3/5/08, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

>> You're probably right: negative concord is required. Otherwise it
>> sounds quite literary - to me anyway.
>>  JL
> Seems like positive exceptive "but" (= 'only') typically occurs in
> fixed copular formulae or proverbs:  "He is but a child/babe",
> "That's but the tip of the iceberg", "Life is but a dream", "Beauty
> is but skin deep".  Of course these have that literary feel too, and
> often these "but" versions are dwarfed by their counterparts with
> "just".

but the original was

>>> i found this to be a page turner. it
>>> took me all but three days to re[a]d the book

with "all but three days" rather than just "but three days".  the
reading i got for "all but three days" was 'almost three days' --
parallel to "I'm all but finished" 'I'm almost finished' -- and this i
find ordinary and not especially literary.  "It took me but three
days" 'It took me only/just/a mere three days' has a definitely
literary/old-fashioned feel to me, however.

Jon's first gloss 'all of' is a construction of interest in itself.
as i see things, "It took me all of three days" has a literal reading
'it took me three days, all of them; it took me an entire three-day
period'.  but in the right context, *all* of these entirety-denoting
expressions can implicate that a longer period might reasonably have
been expected, so that three days was notably less than expected --
i.e., 'only/just/a mere/but three days'.  (Larry can undoubtedly work
through the quantity implicatures for us.)  my impression is that
these implicatures have become conventionalized for "all of" (so that
"all of three days" is ambiguous), but not for "a whole", "an entire",
etc.  distinguishing types of conveyed meaning is notoriously
difficult, of course.


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