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!