"little/few but" (was: "long from" for "far from")

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Nov 30 01:57:45 UTC 2008

At 7:11 PM -0500 11/29/08, Alison Murie wrote:
>Quoted in an ad for /The Truth of Power/ from the blurb: "Barber
>believes, against the grain of conventional wisdom, that
>  Clinton 'is a man   whose democratic career is long from over.'"
>I don't think I've ever encountered this one before.
This reminds me of a construction I've found (partly by googling,
partly naturalistically) a lot of examples of, even though it's not
"supposed to" occur:  _little/few but X_. (Or ditto with "except" in
place of "but". The usual claim (going back to the 13th century, but
independently discovered by many modern scholars) is that exceptives
of the "but" kind can only occur with universals:  "everyone but
you", "none but the brave", "anyone but a total idiot", etc., but not
"someone but Bush", "many people but Obama", "most Americans but
McCain", etc.  And presumably "Who but a total idiot..." is OK
because it rhetorically communicates a universal negative.  But what
then to make of

Does poetry matter?  Few but other poets may read it.
          --Martin Arnold, "Poets pit pens against swords", NYT 2/6/03
Landowners could do little but accept their fate.
With little except morbid thoughts to occupy his time,...
...an artful yet provocative cover for her all-Bach CD in which she
appears to be wearing little except her violin.

and many other examples with "little but" or "few but"?  My take on
these is that they involve a blend of e.g. "could do little (about
it)" + "could do nothing but accept it".


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

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