Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

All Work and No Play

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2011

In my last post, I wrote, “…there was one piece of data that I kept trying to cover, but could only do so at the cost of letting this quant/SOA ambiguity occur with all NPs, not just indefinites (i.e., those that could fit into the sentence frame There+be). Can you think of the common saying that caused me so much grief?” I promised the answer in the next post, so here it is:

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Taken compositionally, this sentence would mean the following:

Every kind of work makes Jack a dull boy, and no kind of play makes Jack a dull boy.

The intended meaning, of course, is something like, “When everything is work, and nothing is play, that state of affairs makes Jack a dull boy.” This is a somewhat different paraphrase than I was giving the SOA interpretations in the last post. There, I was using there-existential sentences. If I had been writing about a simpler sentence like No play makes Jack a dull boy, I would have rephrased it as “When there is no play, that makes Jack a dull boy.” But now I’ve switched to “When nothing is play….” I did that so it could be syntactically parallel to when everything is work. I had to rephrase All work that way, because rephrasing it as “There is all work” is no good. All isn’t one of those existential determiners that fit into the there+be frame.

And the problem is not just that There is all work sounds funny. If I used the same formal semantics on all work as I used on the existential noun phrases like no play, too much beer, or more money, it would mean “the state of affairs in which all the work exists.” Well, that SOA is trivially true. All the work that exists exists. For that matter, all the anything that exists exists, and that’s not what the sentence means.

So the SOA meaning that worked for no play doesn’t work for all work. On the other hand, the SOA meaning that does work for all work is also fine for no play. So why not just go with an analysis that uses the SOA meaning semantics for all work?

Well, now that I’m letting one non-existential NP have the SOA meaning, I’ve essentially opened the gates for any NP at all to have it. I could theoretically say something like Neal makes Jack a dull boy and mean “The state of affairs in which Neal exists makes Jack a dull boy.” Furthermore, I don’t even think that all itself participates in SOA meanings outside this expression and its derivatives. I did a quick search in COCA for all plus a noun and didn’t find anything. I limited the search to all plus a noun followed by the verb mean, since that verb is especially fond of SOA NPs for subjects and direct objects. When I did that, I turned up All options means all options, but even there, I think something else is going on. It’s really not so much an actual use of the NP all options as it is a mention of it, a quotation of a snippet of a sentence: “When I say ‘all options’, I mean ‘all options’.” So for that reason, I’m sticking with SOA semantics for existential NPs only, and excluding All work and no play as an individually learned idiom.

My poster session is from 10:30 to noon tomorrow, so if you’re at LSA, come by and tell me why I’m all wrong about this!

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9 Responses to “All Work and No Play”

  1. Julie said

    Isn’t there a missing (inferred) initial clause? “A life that’s…” for example?

    “All work and no play” seems like a descriptive phrase, not something one can use as the subject of a sentence, even though “all work” and “no play” are noun phrases when they stand alone. “(Something that’s) all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

  2. Ellen K. said

    On the poster, I read it as you saying the whole sentence “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is an idiom and doesn’t the pattern. The whole thing is an idiom, of course, but, still, we can also take “all work an no play” as an idiom within the idiom, and then the wider idiom fits the pattern.

    The state of affairs of “all work and no play” makes Jack a dull boy.

    I also like Julie’s comment that there’s an inferred “a life that’s”.

    • Neal said

      Your paraphrase still leaves us to interpret what “all work and no play” means. Does it mean, “all work exists”? (No.) So I think my proposal of “everything that exists is work” is still on the mark. Julie’s supplying of “a life that’s” works, too, but doesn’t generalize to other cases. Either way, the way you’re interpreting this idiom is different from the SOA interpretation we give the other ones.

  3. The Ridger said

    “All there is is work”?

    • Ran said

      But I don’t think something like “All good news makes me nervous” can mean “It makes me nervous when all there is is good news.” (“All good news and no bad news makes me nervous” does work for me, though, if just barely. It’s almost as if the coordinated “no” part were needed to license an SOA reading of the “all” part. I think it mostly only works because of the resonance with “all work and no play”, though.)

      • Neal said

        Your suggestion that the coordination with no play makes this interpretation possible is one that was suggested to me by one of the people who viewed the poster.

        I think I might actually be able to get All good news makes me nervous in the right context. In fact, I can imagine a historian writing about the buildup to the 2002 invasion of Iraq, and all the predictions about what would happen, and saying, “All good news should have made Bush nervous.” OTOH, now I find myself wanting to rephrase it as “All THIS good news…”, and the quantificational reading of all good news keeps coming to the fore.

  4. Alacritas said

    I know this is a bit late, but to be honest I love flipping through your old articles!

    Anyway — I’m sorry to say that I disagree with your parse of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” You interpret it as “Every kind of work makes Jack a dull boy, and no kind of play makes Jack a dull boy”, which to me doesn’t really seem to make sense. I would interpret it rather as something along the lines of “If all that Jack is doing is work, and none is play, then he is a dull boy.” This is in a certain way the opposite of the alternative, as it’s not talking about the fact that any kind of work makes Jack dull; but rather that if Jack can only work and that if play is unallowed or impossible, then he would be dull.

    I always saw it as saying that you need to balance labor and leisure — not that someone (for whom “Jack” is a metaphor) is depressed by any kind of work and that conversely any kind of play would excite them.

    • Neal said

      I think if you read closer you’ll find we agree. My point was that the intended (and accepted) meaning is not the one you get by ordinary composition.

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