"all but" = all of; a mere"

Dennis Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Thu Mar 6 17:32:54 UTC 2008

Odd that arnold finds this reading of "all but there" days to suggest
that it was less than expected. For me, the expectation is just the
opposite; not only that it was three full days but that it should
have taken less. What are we missing here?


>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       "Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
>Subject:      Re: "all but" = all of; a mere"
>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.
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
Morrill Hall 15-C
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48864 USA

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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