Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

There’s Only So …

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2013

Almost seven years ago, I was cutting up some chicken fingers for Adam, and my wife dared to question my chicken-finger-cutting skills, asking if I was sure I was cutting it into small enough pieces. As I told her at the time:

There’s only so small I can cut it.

In the six years since then, I’m happy to report that Adam has learned to cut his own food, so I haven’t repeated the utterance. And in the case of chicken fingers, which Adam loves just as much now as he did then, he just picks them up and eats them as finger food anyway. But what interested me at the time, as I wrote here, was how easily I was able to generate that sentence, which I don’t find grammatical. I wasn’t doing diagrams on this blog back then, but if I had, I probably would have put up a diagram something like this to show the syntactic structure of the “There’s only so much” construction:

I'm sorry; my hands are tied here.

After the subject there and the verb is, there’s only one more chunk: the noun phrase only so much I can do. This NP has two parts: the determinative phrase only so much, and the “nouny” part of the NP (the nominal). As it happens, the nouny part of this NP doesn’t have a noun. I’ve labeled this missing noun N1. If the phrase were something like only so much money I can spend, or only so much information you’re allowed to see, this is where the noun money or information would go. Right next to the N1 is a relative clause that’s missing an NP in the place labeled GAP, which is subscripted with a 1 to show this gap corresponds to the N1.

In my sentence about the chicken fingers, though, there’s no much followed by a nominal. There’s no NP; there’s some kind of business with the adjective small. How did my grammar get to a place where it could generate that? I think the first step was a reanalysis like this:

The relative clause breaks free!

Now, after the There is, there are two constituents instead of one. The relative clause I can do GAP has broken free of the rest of the NP. Also, the GAP in the relative clause is now identified with the whole NP only so much, instead of the N inside it.

The last part is to lose the restriction to having just an NP and a clause with an NP gap. So here’s the more general version, with N replaced by ? to show that it can be an adjective phrase or adverb phrase — really, any phrase as long as it refers to something gradable. The clause that used to be just a relative clause is now a clause with any kind of gap, as long as it’s the same kind as the only phrase. Now this construction can handle utterances like my There’s only so small I can cut it or There’s only so far you can go.

There's only: general version

The reason I was reminded of only so small I can cut it is that I was listening to the most recent episode of Risk (the podcast that had that real-life example of a squinting ambiguity). The host Kevin Allison was telling a story about a time when he was obsessively trying to memorize a comedy bit he was going to perform. But he hit a point of diminishing returns, because

There’s only so memorized the thing can get.

In my 2006 post, I ended with a link to a page of Google results with similar examples. COCA wasn’t around then — or if it was, I hadn’t heard of it yet. But it’s here now. When I searched for “there BE only so *”, I got 448 hits, of which 428 are instances with much or many. Of the remaining 20, twelve had far; six had long; the last two had fast. Here’s an example of each:

  • there was only so far he could extend the examination before Djazir caught on
  • there was only so long he could hold this form before his own magick turned on him
  • There’s only so fast that the government can act

Got any examples with other adjectives or adverbs? Leave a comment!

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2 Responses to “There’s Only So …”

  1. Billy said

    How about something like: “There was only so upset that Chris could get over something that was out of his control.”

    or: “There was only so obvious that Francine could make it to Chris that she had a crush on him.”

    Would you say that those work?

  2. EP said

    There’s only so difficult those diagrams can get! <;-) For me, anyway.

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