There’s Only So Small I Can Cut It
Posted by Neal on September 1, 2006
“I’ll help Doug with his pancakes, and you can cut up Adam’s chicken fingers,” my wife proposed, as we had supper in a popular family-friendly Midwestern chain restaurant.
“Sure,” I said, and made my initial pass over Adam’s chicken fingers, cutting into one-inch lengths. The next step was to cut these chunks in half in the other direction, but before I could get that far, my wife said, “You’re going to cut those smaller, right?”
She was still skittish about the time a few weeks earlier when Adam had started choking on a bite of chicken finger, and I’d had to jump up and do the Heimlich on him. “I thought I was going to die,” he’d told us afterward in a sober, exaggeration- and hyperbole-free voice that gave us a willie or two.
“Yep,” I said, and made the second round of cuts.
“Can he chew those?” my wife asked.
“Well,” I said, “there’s only so small I can cut it before the breading starts coming off.”
Wait a minute–what did I just say? Something wasn’t quite right. Let’s see, I thought, when you hear a sentence start with There’s, you expect a noun phrase to come next, like There’s our waiter, or There’s a fly in my soup. Looking at it this way, a sentence such as There’s only so much money I can spend breaks down as just a There’s plus a big noun phrase, like this:
There’s [only so much [money I can spend] ]
Or if you have a sentence such as There’s only so much I can do, it’s still There’s plus a noun phrase that just happens to be missing its noun: so much [stuff] I can do. But I guess over time I’ve begun to subconsciously analyze sentences like There’s only so much money I can spend like this:
There’s [only so much money] [I can spend]
It’s not a two-part structure of There’s plus a noun phrase. It’s a three-part structure, with There’s for Part 1. Part 2 is a phrase denoting something gradable, of form only so+X. In this example X = much money. Part 3 is a clause missing just such a phrase; in the above example, I can spend
only so much money. All together, the three parts mean the same thing as I can spend only so much money, but the rearrangement plus the There’s puts the focus on the limitation.
And now it seems that I can fill in X with items other than noun phrases. Specifically, I can put in gradable adjectives such as small, and end up with sentences like the one I found myself uttering: There’s only so small I can cut it. Well, that’s not entirely true. If it were thoroughly embedded in my grammar, my alarm bells wouldn’t have gone off once it was out of my mouth. But the rule is strong enough that it let me fluently generate such a sentence in the first place. Furthermore, I can comfortably speak and hear sentences of this pattern where X is a measure of distance, as in There’s only so far we can go.
When we got home from the restaurant, I had to find out if other speakers had made the same kind of abstraction with the There’s only so construction that I had. Surely some had. And in fact, it looks like some have.