Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Even Goes Where Only Can’t

Posted by Neal on April 12, 2010

Even and only have a lot in common. They’re both members of a class of words called focus-sensitive operators, items whose meaning depends on the intonation of the phrase they’re in. They behave so similarly that you can make jokes by swapping one for the other. In his album That Was the Year That Was (the same one with “National Brotherhood Week”), Tom Lehrer sang about New Math (or as they call it now, math). In the refrain, he declared,

It’s so simple … so very simple … that only a child can do it!

Recently, though, I’ve noticed something even can do that only can’t. As a preview, here’s an example of what even can do that arrived in today’s Sunday paper, in the Stone Soup comic:

Look! The dog doesn’t even want it!!

I don’t have the technology to paste in the strip, but you can look for it in the GoComics.com Stone Soup archive (April 11, 2010), or you can read Mark Liberman’s post about this strip on Language Log, although he’s commenting on it for a different reason.

Do you see what even is doing that only can’t? If not, read on.

I’ve written about only before, in the sentence

Squiggly only ate chocolate.

I brought up this sentence in a review of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. One meaning of this sentence is that all Squiggly ever did with chocolate was eat it. Specifically, this is the meaning you get if you put the focal stress on ate: Squiggly only ate chocolate. Another meaning, and the one that grammar mavens would like to disallow for the sentence, is that all Squiggly ever ate was chocolate. This is the meaning you get if you put the focal stress on chocolate: Squiggly only ate chocolate. Unfortunately, the way focal stress in English works, in Squiggly only ate chocolate, the stress on chocolate could indicate focus on just chocolate, or on the entire VP ate chocolate. If the focus is on the entire VP, then the meaning is that the only activity Squiggly ever engaged in was to eat chocolate.

As a side note, it’s probably this kind of ambiguity that leads writers on language to urge us to put only right next to the word it modifies. In the Squiggly/chocolate sentence, if you want to modify chocolate, you should write Squiggly ate only chocolate. That’s good advice, but it’s a matter of style, not grammar. Squiggly only ate chocolate may be ambiguous, but the “ate nothing but chocolate” reading is still perfectly grammatical. Furthermore, this emphasis on what word is being modified causes grammar writers to overlook the possibility that only might be modifying an entire phrase (e.g. ate chocolate) rather than a single word (such as ate).

Last year, I wrote a post on a similar sentence with the word even:

Stewart even hit Phil on the nose.

In this sentence, even could modify just hit: Stewart did a lot of things to Phil’s nose, the most amazing or outrageous of which was that he hit Phil on it. Alternatively, even could modify just Phil: Stewart hit many people on the nose, up to and including the unlikeliest victim, Phil. (Grammar mavens would require it to be phrased hit even Phil.) Or, even could modify the phrase on the nose: Stewart hit Phil in a lot of places, including the most unlikely place, on Phil’s nose. Finally, even could modify the entire VP hit Phil on the nose. That would mean that of all the socially unacceptable things Stewart did (or courageous things, or unpredictable things), the most surprising was to hit Phil on the nose.


As a preview, here’s an example of what even can do that arrived in today’s Sunday paper, in the Stone Soup comic:

Look! The dog doesn’t even want it!!

I don’t have the technology to paste in the strip, but you can look for it in the GoComics.com Stone Soup archive (April 11, 2010), or you can read Mark Liberman’s post about this strip on Language Log, although he’s commenting on it for a different reason.

Do you see what even is doing that only can’t? If not, read on.

I’ve written about only before, in the sentence

Squiggly only ate chocolate.

I brought up this sentence in a review of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. One meaning of this sentence is that all Squiggly ever did with chocolate was eat it. Specifically, this is the meaning you get if you put the focal stress on ate: Squiggly only ate chocolate. Another meaning, the one that grammar mavens would like to disallow for the sentence, is that all Squiggly ever ate was chocolate. This is the meaning you get if you put the focal stress on chocolate: Squiggly only ate chocolate. Unfortunately, the way focal stress in English works, in Squiggly only ate chocolate, the stress on chocolate could indicate focus on just chocolate, or on the entire VP ate chocolate. If the speaker intends to focus the entire VP, then the meaning is that the only activity Squiggly ever engaged in was to eat chocolate, but without context, it’s hard to say.

As a side note, it’s probably this kind of ambiguity that leads writers on language to urge us to put only right next to the word it modifies. For the Squiggly/chocolate sentence, their advice would be that if you want to modify chocolate, you should write Squiggly ate only chocolate. That’s good advice, but it’s a matter of style, not grammar. Squiggly only ate chocolate may be ambiguous, but the “ate nothing but chocolate” reading is still perfectly grammatical.

Last year, I wrote a post on a similar sentence with the word even:

Stewart even hit Phil on the nose.

In this sentence, even could modify just hit if you put the focal stress there: Stewart even hit Phil on the nose. In other words, Stewart did a lot of things to Phil’s nose, the most amazing or outrageous of which was that he hit Phil on it. Alternatively, even could modify just Phil: Stewart even hit Phil on the nose. That is, Stewart hit many people on the nose, up to and including the unlikeliest victim, Phil. (Grammar mavens would require it to be phrased hit even Phil.) Or, even could modify the phrase on the nose: Stewart even hit Phil on the nose. Stewart hit Phil in a lot of places, including the most unlikely place, on Phil’s nose. Finally, even could modify the entire VP hit Phil on the nose. For that reading, you’d want to use an intonation something like Stewart even hit Phil on the nose. That would mean that of all the socially unacceptable things Stewart did (or courageous things, or unpredictable things), the most surprising was to hit Phil on the nose.

In both of these examples, we have only or even at the beginning of a VP, possibly modifying the entire VP or just one component of it. But now look at this example I collected on New Year’s Day, in a story about Christian-themed parodies of pop cultural icons (otherwise known as “Jesus junk”):

Preachers are even in on the act: They can buy materials for sermons based on popular TV shows including Lost and Survivor. (link)

This sentence has an even inside a VP, taking scope not over a component of the VP, not over the entire VP, but over something outside the VP: the subject! Of all the people who could buy Christian parodies of stuff, you might think preachers would be the least likely to do it, but lo and behold, some of them buy it. (Actually, I can think of people a lot less likely to do it, but we’ll go with the writer’s assumption here.) A less ambiguous (and in my opinion more natural) way of expressing this meaning would be Even preachers are getting into the act, but with the right intonation, this sentence still works. All you have to do is put stress on preachers: Preachers are even getting in on the act!

The final panel of the Stone Soup strip has a similar example, but with a negation. Doesn’t even doesn’t take scope over just the verb want; that would mean “Of all the things the dog could do with this dip, wanting it is the most likely, and he doesn’t want it.” (Understood: he doesn’t do any of the less likely things with the dip, either, like eat it or paint with it.) Doesn’t even doesn’t take scope over just the direction object it; that would mean “Of all the things the dog could want, this dip is the most likely, and he doesn’t want it.” (Or any of the less likely things he could want, either.) It takes scope over the subject, to convey that “Of all the people or animals who might want this dip, the dog is the most likely, and he doesn’t want it.” (And neither do any of the people who are less likely to want it.) This meaning could be expressed less ambiguously by saying, “Even the dog doesn’t want it!”, but the phrasing the girl used still works, provided the focus is on The dog — which it is, as indicated by the boldface lettering on dog in the strip.

Only can’t do this. It can’t reach outside the VP it’s in (or in front of) and modify the subject. If you want only to modify the subject, you have to put it there. You can’t say something like

Squiggly only ate chocolate.
Stewart only hit Phil on the nose.

and have it mean that only Squiggly ate chocolate, or that only Stewart hit Phil on the nose. To get those meanings, you have to say Only Squiggly ate chocolate, and Only Stewart hit Phil on the nose.

Now it’s true that you can sometimes force only to modify a noun that came just before it, as in This chocolate is for men only. But for this to work, you have to stress the only, not the noun it modifies. It just sounds weird to say This chocolate is for men only, unless it’s in response to the question, “Did you say this was for women only, or men only?” If that were what was going on in these sentences, we’d expect them to have these intonations:

*Preachers are even getting in on the act.

*The dog doesn’t even want it!

In fact, for some theories of syntax, I believe it’s something of a problem that even should be able to scope backwards this way. And again, why should it be able to when its semantic cousin only can’t?

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8 Responses to “Even Goes Where Only Can’t”

  1. Ellen said

    Okay, this is not on the main topic, but I’m puzzled by the old version of subtraction depicted in the video. It makes no sense. And the difference in subtraction methods doesn’t seem to have any connection to the stuff about “new math” that I’ve found on the Internet.

    • Neal said

      I think the animator messed up when doing “8 from 4 is 6″. The impression I get is that in the old days, instead of borrowing, you actually had to learn as a subtraction fact that 4-8=6. But the animator just had it do “8-4=6″, which makes even less sense.

    • The Ridger said

      Yeah, the words are “seven from three is six” and “eight from four is six” but the picture is 7-3=6 and 8-4=6.

      I’m not old enough to know what he’s talking about, though it looks like it has to do with where you carried to… maybe?

  2. Ran said

    I’m probably just missing something, but, aren’t there plenty of cases where only “even” is possible, or only “only”? For example, some kinds of adverbial afterthoughts can be prefaced with “even”, or with “but only”, but not (in my opinion) with “but even” or bare “only”:

    > He’s literal-minded, ( even | *but even | *only | but only ) for a linguist.
    > It’s possible, ( even | *but even | *only | but only ) if it […]

    Admittedly, “but even” would make no semantic sense in these examples; but I think bare “only” could have made sense if it were grammatical, and the grammatically similar “and even” seems semantically fine but grammatically not.

  3. Philip Whitman said

    “Squiggly only ate chocolate.” Couldn’t one literal, although ridiculous, interpretation of this sentence be that Squiggly never did anything else except eat chocolate? That Squiggly didn’t ever go swimming or play tennis or golf or baseball or chess or anything? That all Squiggly did all day, day in and day out, was sit in a room and eat chocolate?

  4. Philip Whitman said

    Ah, so. Sorry, I glossed over this sentence: “If the speaker intends to focus the entire VP, then the meaning is that the only activity Squiggly ever engaged in was to eat chocolate, but without context, it’s hard to say.” Anyway, I’m glad that I was not totally wrong in my observation.

  5. dainichi said

    “for some theories of syntax, I believe it’s something of a problem that even should be able to scope backwards this way.”

    Wouldn’t they have the same problem with constructions like

    The preachers are all getting in on the act.

    Where all seemingly modifying the subject semantically, but syntactically looks like it’s part of the verb phrase. Interestingly, “no” or “some” can’t take the place of “all” here.

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