Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

5 Responses to “There’s Only So Small I Can Cut It”

  1. Russell said

    Hmm, very interesting. In fact, really interesting, even aside from the reanalysis and extention involving adjectives.

    The use of “only…so” is kind of interesting, since (I think) “so” is usually used to express an unexpectedly extreme degree. But it’s true that you can get things like:

    – you should build the portal only so wide that your pets can squeeze through (but nothing bigger can).

    This doesn’t sound totally bad, but I had to think a while before I realized it was possible. Here you have [only [so … that D]], where D is the expression of the degree.

    But then consider: can you get the “that D” part in the construction in your post?

    – there’s only so much money i can spend (in one year) that…
    – (since) only so many papers can be accepted (for one conference) that…

    I can’t think of a good way to finish this sentence (or any other in the form “there BE only so … that…” Is the “only” somehow stealing that valence member of “so”? (either constructionally or pragmatically?)

    (there is also the “so” as in “from an airplane, the city’s 1,000,000 cars seem like so many ants.” Not sure if it could be that “so”; the sole subdefinition (of “so”) in the OED that mentions “only so” puts it in this category, iirc)

  2. You are albe to generate the adjectival form because you have a twisted brain. Even worse than an adjective is an adverb.

    There’s only so rapidly a guy can run.

    Note that the simple form works.

    A guy can run only so rapidly.

    The OSU Dept Chair was asking if anyone knows how to contact you, so I gave her your web site. So, why did you gavitate to Word Press?

  3. Elaine Whitman said

    This entry makes me think about the fact that you can only fold a piece of paper in half so many times, no matter how thin or how big that paper is. That number is 8.

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] that? There’s only so long you can hide from the truth. It’s another one like There’s only so small I can cut it and There’s only so memorized the thing can get. An existential There is that introduces not […]

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