"all but" = all of; a mere"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Mar 6 15:53:58 UTC 2008

At 6:56 AM -0800 3/6/08, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:
>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
>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".

My original post on this thread was the 
suggestion that the "all but three days" was a 
blend of "all of..." and "but", before the latter 
spun off into its own thread.

>   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.

Indeed, but given the context in which "all but 
three days" occurred here, the semantics, and 
especially the pragmatics, of the two are quite 
different.  "I'm {almost/all but} finished" is a 
boast that I've done more on it than might have 
been expected, and suggests that I'll be finished 
soon if things continue to go this well.  That 
is, I've done surprisingly as much as X.  "It 
took me (all) but three days to read that book" 
is a boast that it didn't take more time than 
that, i.e. surprisingly no more than X, as with 
"only" or "just".  So the *form* of "all but 
three days" may borrow from "all but" = 'almost', 
but the force is quite distinct.

>  "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.

The relevant sense in the OED entry is 6, 
indicating that the occurrence of "but" in these 
positive contexts (although it strikes us as 
archaic/literary now) is a later development of 
the negative polarity conjunction, thus 
constituting an instance of hyponegation, to use 
the label I was promoting in my ADS talk in 

but adv., conj. 6a:
By the omission of the negative accompanying the 
preceding verb (see 4a), but passes into the 
adverbial sense of: Nought but, no more than, 
only, merely. (Thus the earlier 'he nis but a 
child' is now 'he is but a child'; here north. 
dialects use NOBBUT = nought but, not but, 'he is 
nobbut a child'.)

1647 COWLEY Mistr., Spring ii, Could they remember but last year.
1732 BERKELEY Alciphr. I. §3 Wks. 1871 II. 29 Do but consider this.
1766 GOLDSM. Vic. W. iii, Premature consolation 
is but the remembrancer of sorrow. 1794 BURNS 
(title) My love she's but a lassie yet.
1876 GREEN Short Hist. i. §3 (1882) 30 In arms 
the kingdom had but a single rival.

>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'.

Right, but that's what I was getting at 
above--these are all "surprisingly, as little as 
that", implicating one would have expected more, 
while "all but" in the sense of 'almost' (like 
"almost", "nearly", etc. themselves) suggests 
"surprisingly, as much as that", implicating one 
would have expected less.

>(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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