"I cannot emphasize"

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Sat Apr 24 13:29:49 UTC 2010

>>   I can't TELL you how complicated this problem is.  '(I'm telling
>>you that) this problem is very complicated'
> Isn't this different from the "emphasize example?  "I can't tell you
> how complicated this problem is", because it's too complicated (for
> me to explain or for you to understand), seems different from "I can
> tell you how complicated this problem is", but I won't (because I'm
> withholding or because you won't understand.
> Joel

I'd understand Arnold's example, with the stress emphasis or rising
intonation on "TELL", as meaning, "This is a really horrendously complicated
problem."  The entire "I can't TELL you" phrase is operating as an
intensifier.  The whole sentence could be rewritten partially in cant, "This
is a gallows complicated problem."

Incidentally, for what it's worth, to my ear "I can't TELL you" scans  X X /
/  -- a lesser ionic ascending foot.  Which might (or might not) suggest
that prosodic factors are at play in whether or not elements of a
widely-used and widely-understood cliché become suppressed.


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

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