November 21, 2007

Positive "let alone"?

In the third paragraph of a Reuters wire service story on the latest Reuters/Zogby poll, John Zogby, the pollster, is quoted as saying "This race is just beginning, let alone all over." (John Whitesides, "Democratic 2008 presidential race tightens: Reuters poll", 11/21/2007).

I'm used to positive anymore ("Thanksgiving is becoming so commercialized anymore"), but this use of let alone (apparently) outside of a polarity context -- a negation or question -- is new to me.

If I search Google News for "let alone", most of the hits involve traditional polarity contexts:

Truck 'not fit for animals, let alone people'
Are You Sure You Know The Best 2? Let Alone 1?
...David Beckham cannot take defenders on at the best of times, let alone when he is no more than semi-fit.
Gene Steratore Is No Ed Hochuli, Let Alone Hulk Hogan
Proton does not even have this at home, let alone overseas.
...the market still doesn’t appear to get dual-core products, let alone the quad-core offerings Intel and AMD will be fighting over. inexperienced and incompetent they don't know how to file a motion, let alone properly get evidence examined.

As usual, the negation or question is sometimes only implicit:

Flintoff: too drunk to throw, let alone catch
You barely know what goes into your mouth sometimes, let alone a deer's mouth.
But nowadays UK is having a hard time beating Vanderbilt, let alone Tennessee...
I will be mightily surprised if any of our strikers are sold, let alone Keane or Defoe.

And occasionally, the polarity construal is more subtle:

"How they managed to stretch and kvetch it out to three hours defies description and challenges the basics of human decency, let alone good TV," the Chicago Tribune's Marilynn Preston wrote at the time.

This example doesn't trouble me at all -- I suppose that I'm interpreting "challenges the basics of human decency, let alone ..." as something like "is not consistent with the basics of human decency, let alone ..."

And after scanning thirty or forty curent let alone uses, I didn't find any others that troubled me. But Zogby's sentence "This race is just beginning, let alone all over" gives me a classic grammatical WTF reaction.

I wonder whether Zogby might have meant something like "this race is not past its beginnings, let alone all over" -- and if so, why I seem to have such difficulty following him down that path. Alternatively, perhaps he represents a speech community that no longer sees "let alone" as a polarity item at all.

Or perhaps my view of how to analyze let alone is too hasty. If you can offer relevant examples or anaysis, let me know.

[Update -- on reflection, it occurs to me that the issue here might have to do with the interpretation of just. In most contexts, just and merely seem similar to barely and hardly:

He has barely/hardly three friends.
He has just/merely three friends.

But (for me at least) they contrast sharply in whether or not they provide an appropriate context for polarity-sensitive items:

He has barely/hardly any friends.
*He has just/merely any friends.

Perhaps John Zogby (or the reporter who transcribed the quotation, perhaps as loosely as journalists generally do) puts just in the polarity-context category.]

[Update with mail from readers -- David N. writes:

i had my own grammatical wtf moment with this just last night. i was on the subway with my girlfriend and she said something along the lines of "i have enough of my own problems, let alone yours". it totally threw me off.

Elise Kendall writes:

After reading your Language Log post this morning about positive 'let alone' I blogged my way over to Evolving Thoughts, where I found the following sentence...

"It is too easy to come up with "possible scenarios", let alone possible adaptations."

Is this another example of what you were talking about in your post? It "feels" wrong to me when I read it but not to the same extent as "This race is just beginning, let alone all over".

Often, it seems that "let alone" is licensed by a paraphrase or implication of the matrix clause, rather than by the clause as it stands. Thus someone who says "I have enough of my own problems, let alone yours" presumably means something like "I can't deal with my own problems, let alone yours".

As for "too", there's a use that licenses polarity items, as in the example cited above "too drunk to throw, let alone catch", which implies "so drunk that (s)he can't throw, let alone catch". The trouble with the Evolving Thoughts phrase is that the negative implication doesn't seem to have the right scope -- presumably it's something like "it's so easy to come up with 'possible scenarios' that success doesn't mean anything". The author meant that this is even more true for "possible adaptations", but I agree that the sentence as written doesn't quite work.]

[Update 12/20/2007 -- David Bull writes:

I think this might be relevant.

Here in the UK we had an advert that ran on TV a couple of years ago for a mortgage company. I can't remember which one though, I think every time I saw it I was having my own WTF moment.

The advert consisted of a group of attractive thirty-somethings in business suits in a bar or diner somewhere talking about switching their mortgaging to a different provider. One of them pipes up about how good a deal you can get from Mortgage Company X and how they give you a lump sum cashback when you transfer your current mortgage to them.

I can't remember what the comment refers back to, but the advocate of Mortgage Company X finishes the advert by saying, "Then you could buy that horse, let alone back it."

I always thought that sounded strange, although I understood the sentiment, and thought it would have sounded better if he had said, "You couldn't back that horse, let alone buy it," but then of course it wouldn't have made any sense in the context of the advert.

I can offer no analysis, I'm afraid, other than the scriptwriter's tight timescale perhaps.

Oh, and I'm a little behind with my RSS feeds.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 21, 2007 09:45 AM