"can do so much"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat May 23 18:26:10 UTC 2009

At 9:29 AM -0700 5/23/09, Arnold Zwicky wrote:
>On May 23, 2009, at 9:12 AM, Herb Stahlke wrote:
>>I'm sure there's been discussion before of "I could care less,"
>>meaning the same as "I couldn't care less."
>endless discussion, here and on Language Log.
>>But I don't recognize
>>"can do so much" ['can only do so much'] as the same sort of thing.
>well, they're not directly comparable in form.  "I could care less" is
>a simple example of undernegation, with a missing explicit negator
>"not".  "can do so much" (if it's not just an error, but a variant) is
>missing a negative element, but it's a implicitly negative
>"only" ('can do a lot, but not more than that').
There are quite a number of hits for "can do so much and no more",
which I think is a factor here.  As Arnold says, it's hard to search
for "can do so much" (meaning 'only so much', 'so much and no more')
tout court.

Is there in fact a way to search for sentence final occurrences on
any search engine?  Obviously, "can do so much."  on google doesn't
do it.

In terms of related constructions, I do have a small collection of
instances presupposing an implicit "only", although not with this
particular context.  The clue in the examples below that there must
be an understood "only" involved is the occurrence of a negative
polarity item like "any", "ever", or "at all" which otherwise would
be ruled out but is licensed here because of the negative nature of
"only" (explicit or implicit).  Two examples:

The tone [of Germaine Greer's attack on manufacturers of vaginal
deodorants] wasn't                              light-hearted, which
might have justified touching the subject at all.
[Charles McCabe, San Francisco Chronicle]

I thought she was a friend of yours.  That's why I ever even noticed
                [Dorothy Parker]

--i.e. "which is the only thing that might have justified touching it
at all", "the only reason why I ever even noticed her".  And then
there's this one, in the parenthetical below:

Sensitive Man as portrayed in popular culture was always a
caricature, of course.  But the signs of his discrediting have been
building, along with male confusion.  (We speak of those heterosexual
men, mainly in their 30's, 40's, and 50's, who ever gave a thought to
any of this.)
[Erik Eckholm, "Hear Them Roar", The Sexes column, New York Times, 8 May 1994]

where once again the sense must be "We speak only of those
heterosexual men...who ever gave a thought to any of this".


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