Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Only the Manly

Posted by Neal on February 7, 2009

noodle12“You’d never catch me sticking my bare hand down a hole like that!” Laura said, as she ran the clippers over the back of my neck. Jim and Stan, two of the other barbers, were sitting in the waiting chairs talking about an outdoor activity that I’d never heard of called noodling. Noodling, I learned, was the sport of catching catfish with just your hand, usually by sticking it into a likely-looking hole in a creek and, if you were lucky enough for a catfish to bite it, pulling out the catfish by its jaw. Part of the thrill was not knowing what might be in one of these holes. Instead of a catfish, it might be nothing at all, or a muskrat, or a snapping turtle. In fact, Stan said, the guy who’d introduced him to noodling was missing a finger — because of an incident involving a gun that he’d picked up by putting his hand over the muzzle.

Then talk turned to the snowstorm we had last week, the one that canceled two days of school for Doug and Adam. That got me to thinking about how many of the allotted “calamity days” for the school year had been used, and while I was doing that, I missed what Jim said next. Laura laughed and I came back to the present.

“Did you hear what they said?” she asked. “Jim and Stan and Harry all came to work that day, but Len was snowed in. So Jim said that only the manly men came in.”

“Ha!” I laughed, and then thought. Hmmm…

Only the manly men came in.

Laura seemed to be speaking from firsthand knowledge when she told me that Jim and Stan and Harry had come in. It sounded like she’d been able to make it to work that day, too. So if my intuition was right, it was not true that only the manly men came in: Only the manly men and Laura had come in!

How about that? Another case where the rule for only propounded by James Kilpatrick (and numerous other writers on language) doesn’t work. Put only next to the manly men and one interpretation is for it to semantically scope over the whole phrase: The only people who came in were the manly men. That was my interpretation. Another interpretation is for only to scope over just the noun men: The only manly barbers who came in that day were men. The manly women stayed home.

Arriving at these goofy interpretations took more than just a disregard for the situation in which the sentence was uttered. Those interpretations occur only if the focal stress is on men — that is, if you say it like this, where the capital letters show that a word gets a little more stress on it.

Only the manly men came in.

I’m underlining men instead of boldfacing or capitalizing it because I don’t want the focal stress on men to be confused with contrast stress. That’s the kind of stress you’d put on the word if you’d said, “Only the manly men came in,” and someone asked, “Only the manly WHO came in?”, and you said, “Only the manly MEN came in!”

Anyway, when Laura repeated the sentence to me, the focal stress was on manly, like this:

Only the manly men came in.

That put the scope over just manly, to generate the intended interpretation: Of all the men who worked in the barbershop, only the manly ones came to work that day. Whether any women who worked there made it to work that day was irrelevant.

What if we were to follow the rule of placing the only next to the (in this case) adjective it modifies? Even if you put the only right next to manly, like this –

The only manly men came in.

– it wouldn’t get you the meaning that Jim intended. The sentence is still ambiguous, and this time none of the readings is the one such that the only men who showed up for work were the manly ones. None of the readings are narrowing down the set of people who came in to work anymore; they’re just stating that among the people who did come in, there was the entire set of manly men. If the focal stress is on men, as in

The only manly men came in

then only could be scoping over manly men, and adding the information that the set of manly men is smaller than you might expect. Or it could be scoping over just men, and not only adding the limitation on the number of manly men, but also leaving open the possibility of manly women. And what if the focal stress is on manly, like this?

The only manly men came in

Now it’s getting tricky. It’s limiting the number of manly men, as before, and now suggesting the existence of men that aren’t manly. And I’m not sure, but there may even be a reading such that the men who came to work that day were the ones who were manly and nothing else; not funny, not obsequious, not purple, not clairvoyant. I’ve read analyses of the semantics of only (most recently this one), but the ones I’ve seen have dealt only with cases where only modifes the subject or predicate of a sentence, not where it modifies pieces within a noun phrase, such as the only manly men.. If you’ve found analyses that cover these cases, I’d be interested in hearing about them.

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2 Responses to “Only the Manly”

  1. The Ridger said

    All of those with ‘only’ after ‘the’ sound odd to me. “only the manly men came in” sounds reasonable, but “the only manly men came in” sounds to me as if it isn’t excluding the “non-manly men” but rather is defining the “manly” ones (John and Jim are the only manly men, and they came in … No, we don’t have any other manly men, the only manly men are here.)

    I don’t know, maybe you meant that.

  2. [...] noun phrase, but on something within the noun phrase. In 2009, I wrote about thinking the sentence Only the manly men came in meant that no women came in; the only people who came in were men (and manly ones at that). Really, [...]

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