"all but" = all of; a mere"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Mar 6 17:18:39 UTC 2008

Larry, I agree. You've explained my intuition quite persuasively. Sorry your post came through after I wrote.


Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Laurence Horn
Subject: Re: "all but" = all of; a mere"

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" (=3D '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=20
suggestion that the "all but three days" was a=20
blend of "all of..." and "but", before the latter=20
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=20
three days" occurred here, the semantics, and=20
especially the pragmatics, of the two are quite=20
different. "I'm {almost/all but} finished" is a=20
boast that I've done more on it than might have=20
been expected, and suggests that I'll be finished=20
soon if things continue to go this well. That=20
is, I've done surprisingly as much as X. "It=20
took me (all) but three days to read that book"=20
is a boast that it didn't take more time than=20
that, i.e. surprisingly no more than X, as with=20
"only" or "just". So the *form* of "all but=20
three days" may borrow from "all but" =3D 'almost',=20
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,=20
indicating that the occurrence of "but" in these=20
positive contexts (although it strikes us as=20
archaic/literary now) is a later development of=20
the negative polarity conjunction, thus=20
constituting an instance of hyponegation, to use=20
the label I was promoting in my ADS talk in=20

but adv., conj. 6a:
By the omission of the negative accompanying the=20
preceding verb (see 4a), but passes into the=20
adverbial sense of: Nought but, no more than,=20
only, merely. (Thus the earlier 'he nis but a=20
child' is now 'he is but a child'; here north.=20
dialects use NOBBUT =3D nought but, not but, 'he is=20
nobbut a child'.)

1647 COWLEY Mistr., Spring ii, Could they remember but last year.
1732 BERKELEY Alciphr. I. =A73 Wks. 1871 II. 29 Do but consider this.
1766 GOLDSM. Vic. W. iii, Premature consolation=20
is but the remembrancer of sorrow. 1794 BURNS=20
(title) My love she's but a lassie yet.
1876 GREEN Short Hist. i. =A73 (1882) 30 In arms=20
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=20
above--these are all "surprisingly, as little as=20
that", implicating one would have expected more,=20
while "all but" in the sense of 'almost' (like=20
"almost", "nearly", etc. themselves) suggests=20
"surprisingly, as much as that", implicating one=20
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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