Every little (bit?) helps

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The Tesco supermarket company defines its values by a slogan that, as my American undergraduate student Denise Wood pointed out to me yesterday, simply doesn't seem (to her or to me) grammatical:

Every little helps

Denise showed it to me on the back of a till receipt, and at first I misread it as "Every little bit helps". (Recall the song title Every Little Bit Hurts.) Then I saw that the head noun bit wasn't there.

British students seem inclined to accept this phrase — possibly because they've been seeing it on bags and till slips for years (Tesco is still a mostly UK company). But there seems to be an isogloss here (a boundary between dialects determined by the use of some particular word or phrase), with me and Denise on one side and possibly (we don't know yet) most British speakers on the other. What does seem clear is that this is not a productive or extensible pattern. You just can't get away with other noun phrases formed, like every little, from a determinative and an adjective. You really can't say *Every big is desirable, or *Each generous gets us closer to the goal. The phrase every little, considered as a noun phrase, has to be some kind of special sui generis construction. It's not just a regular normal deployment of determinative and adjective.

I'm not saying you can never make a noun phrase with a determinative and an adjective; you certainly can make some, like the rich or the unthinkable. (No, rich, or unthinkable are not nouns. The argument is left as an exercise for the reader.) There is even such a noun phrase using little as the adjective, namely a little. But notice that *the little is not a well-formed noun phrase. (A little goes a long way is a sentence of English, but *The little went a long way is not.) The point is that there are only certain special noun phrase constructions of the form determinative + adjective. *Every rich is not a noun phrase. Nor is *all unthinkable. And for at least me and Denise, *every little is no better than they are.

We are quick learners, and we will recognize the phrase from now on, so we can follow what Tesco is talking about. We are not complaining. But the phrase seems to be a small extension of our language, rather than a pre-existing part of it.

[Update: Some of the comments below reveal that the origin of the phrase has nothing to do with Tesco, since every little has been established as a noun phrase for hundreds of years. So the odd fact here is that in three decades of hearing British English before my departure for the USA, I never noticed it or used it, and arrived at my present maturity still finding it ungrammatical to my ear. Let me add that there was some repetition and arguing and ill-tempered complaining in the comments below as of 4 a.m. Language Log time, and I have spend some of the late hours of the night shift deleting some of the clutter. If your comment was a snippy complaint or repeated something or was clearly confused or was wildly irrelevant or was overtaken by events, don't be too surprised to find it gone. One of the comments I did not delete despite my disagreement with it, from Mollymooly, says that the phrase is merely a proverb, and "There are no generalisations to be drawn or lessons to be learnt. Everybody move along, now." I couldn't fail not to disagree less. This is not a proverb, and anyway proverbs can teach us things about syntax. And from my quick look at this case, I have learned that the complexities of the syntax of the word little are much greater than I thought. It is an adjective but also a determinative; it can participate in modifier-head fusion (see The Cambridge Grammar pp. 410ff on that), but only with various odd restrictions on what the determiner is, and those restrictions are not the same in all dialects. That's a lot to learn from having an undergraduate show me a supermarket till receipt!]

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32 Comments »

  1. Glenn Willen said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    "A little goes a long way is a sentence of English, but *The little went a long way is not."

    What about "The little [that] they were able to provide went a long way."? To my ear that sounds as good as your first sentence.

    [GKP: Yes, there is a special construction that allows little to play at being a head noun if it has a relative clause attached. Go figure. I'm not responsible for this language; I'm just attempting to explore the ragged edges of its complexity.]

  2. language hat said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    If it's an extension, it's not a new one. OED:

    1791 J. O'KEEFFE Wild Oats V. iii. 64 It is'n't much, but every little helps.
    1840 MARRYAT Poor Jack xiii. 90 It's a very old saying, that every little helps.
    1873 ‘MARK TWAIN’ in ‘Mark Twain’ & Warner Gilded Age xxiv. 226 Every little helps, you know.
    1936 ‘G. ORWELL’ Let. 14 Feb. in Coll. Ess. (1968) I. 163, I expect I can either review it or get it reviewed… Not that that gives one much of a boost, but every little helps.
    1967 V. CANNING Python Project iv. 63 Carry on. Every little helps. You might turn up something.

    Since "every little bit helps" does not appear to be in the OED, it would appear to be the innovation.

  3. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    But notice that *the little is not a well-formed noun phrase. (A little goes a long way is a sentence of English, but *The little went a long way is not.)

    It is for me. At least, if it doesn't work, than neither does The bit went a long way. I've been trying to come up with expressions where I can make bit in the sense of "a small amount" work but not little and failing. In The little you gave me wasn't enough, it even sounds better.

    I'm not sure what this says beyond the fact that I'm standing squarely on the other side of the isogloss.

  4. Steve said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    I don't think British acceptance of 'Every little helps' is due to years of brainwashing by Tesco. So far as I am aware, Tesco has only used the slogan for the past year or two, whereas I can't remember a time when I did not know and use the expression. It is almost proverbial in British English, which perhaps explains its syntactical oddness. I have to say that I – and I suspect most Brits – was entirely unaware of its peculiarity until you pointed it out, but now you come to mention it… I won't stop using it though, but I might try if I thought Americans would think I had learnt my English from Tesco slogans.

  5. Cavity Lee said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    I've only run into this usage in one place– the (British) band New Order released a song called "Every Little Counts" in 1986, which uses "every little" in the same sense ("every little counts when I am with you") and seems neither ironic nor in any way intended to make grocery stores part of the song's topic. I took it for a UK English thing, and had no idea it might be from a particular corporate slogan.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    As the OED observes, little has a sort of second life as a noun, in phrases like "a little of her goes a long way", "the little that was left", etc.

  7. Michael said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    The previous comments seem to indicate a fairly good usage history… the example that came to mind for me is from the New Order song "Every Little Counts," on the Brotherhood album.

    First verse starts, "Every second counts / When I am with you".

    Second verse starts, "Every little counts / When I am with you".

    New Order is a Brit band…

  8. dw said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    I grew up in England and moved to the US eleven years ago, well before Tesco adopted this slogan. The phrase "every little helps" is extremely familiar to me. As Steve says, it has "almost proverbial" status in Britain. I guess that I had always analysed it in my head as "every little [bit] helps".

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    If it's an extension, it's not a new one. OED

    Yep: verifiable also via Google Books 1700-1800. A case of recency illusion?

    [GKP: Yes, Ray, I have been a victim of the Recency Illusion. We may have publicized it here on Language Log, but that has not made us immune to it.]

  10. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    Must agree with language hat. "Every little is a help" and "every little is much" turns up many hits (19th c. on) in Google Books.

  11. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    From my extensive reading of silly P.G.Wodehouse novels, it appears that there IS some process where an adjective that occurs in a cliche can get noun-like treatment in a playful way. I'm pretty sure that, for example, "ready cash" gets used as "a bit of the old ready" (memory here, not lookup).

  12. Gary said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    In the 1970s, the US Parks service used "Every litter bit hurts" as a slogan. Confused the hell out of my German relatives who thought they were being warned against a poisonous insect.

  13. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    @ Jens F:

    Yes, & this process is taken to its logical extreme in Dennis Potter's TV drama “Lipstick on Your Collar”. UK viewers may recall Major Hedges' regular call "Time for the barely-bloody!". This referred to his original description of War Office coffee as "the barely bloody drinkable [sc. beverage]". This sort of self-referential humour often occurs in Dickens, too.

    "The barely-bloody" is analogous to "the altogether" (ie total nudity).

  14. Peter F said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    The slogan morphed recently to "Every litre helps", which is supposed to describe that if you spend over £50, you can get 5p off per litre of petrol.

  15. Tyler Dzuba said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

    I, too, think *"Every little helps" is totally ungrammatical. But I can see "The little went a long way" working if "the little" serves as a substantive. The sentence in question would then refer to a group of small people on an extensive journey. Perhaps I'm just tainted by Latin and Greek, where adjectives get nouned all the time.

  16. daniel demski said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    Well googling, I get 248 thousand or, 146 thousand if I exclude pages with tesco in them. For 'every little bit helps' I get 314 thousand, or 308 thousand if I exclude tesco. So on the Internet every little bit is 3 times as popular?

  17. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    Curious that the OED has

    1791 J. O'KEEFFE Wild Oats V. iii. 64 It is'n't much, but every little helps.

    but the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs cites the same passage as

    1791 J. O'KEEFFE Wild Oats V. iii. Here–it's not much! but every little helps.

    Anyone willing to seek out the source and check which is the correct version?

  18. Stephen Jones said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    It does seem to be a British phrase. There is no entry in the COCA for 'every little + v' whilst the same string on the BNC turns out eight examples for every little helps (only one referring to Tesco). The COCA has 79 hits for 'every little bit' whilst the BNC has twelve. Seven of the BNC hits are for 'every little bit helps' whilst the COCA has 33 hits for that.

  19. language hat said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

    This 1806 edition of Wild Oats has "Here–it's not much; but every little helps."

  20. mollymooly said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    Proverbs don't have to be grammatical. Some proverbs are not (well) known in America. There are no generalisations to be drawn or lessons to be learnt. Everybody move along, now.

  21. tree_and_leaf said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 3:53 am

    What's more, if you look at all usages of 'a little', rather than just the phrase 'every little', which is the OED's sense 4a, then we get citations going back to the thirteenth century, so it's only a recent development for people who thing it's been downhill all the way since the Norman Conquest.

    4. a. A small quantity, piece, portion; a small thing; a trifle.
    c1220 Bestiary 110 Naked falle in e funt-fat, and cume ut al newe, buten a litel. c1380 WYCLIF Sel. Wks. III. 347 Cristis apostlis..were not bisie about dymes, but helden hem paied on a litil, at the puple af hem redily. c1400 Destr. Troy 1449 Lo, how fortune..of a litill hath likyng a low for to kyndull. 1614 DAY Festivals ix. (1615) 267 Contemne not these littles, be they in truth never so little. 1631 FOSBROKE Solomons Charitie (1633) 7 Many littles, given unto many,..is better then much conferred upon one. 1692 R. L'ESTRANGE Fables cccclxviii. 443 A Man may be Happy with a Little, and Miserable in Abundance. 1846 D. JERROLD St. Giles xxiii. (1851) 236 When a man's being shaved, what a little will make him laugh. 1865 DICKENS Mut. Fr. II. xiv, A debt to pay off by littles.
    Prov. 1622 MABBE tr. Aleman's Guzman d'Alf. I. 50 Many a little, makes a mickle. 1791 J. O'KEEFFE Wild Oats V. iii. 64 It is'n't much, but every little helps. 1840 MARRYAT Poor Jack xiii. 90 It's a very old saying, that every little helps. 1872 S. HALE Lett. (1918) 84, I get fearfully tired, and a very little Abbey goes a long way with me. 1873 ‘MARK TWAIN’ in ‘Mark Twain’ & Warner Gilded Age xxiv. 226 Every little helps, you know.

    As far as the isogloss goes – as has been already pointed out, the last citation is solidly and impeccably American. The usage may, of course, have died out in the States since…

  22. Dougal Stanton said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 5:10 am

    Terry Leahy, current Tesco CEO, is credited some places with introducing that slogan, though I can't find definitive information.

    CNN did an interview with Terry Leahy, and introduce their interview with "Every little bit helps — this is a Tesco mantra". Was this a deliberate mangling of the slogan to make it readable to a larger American audience, or was it accidental, like Geoff Pullum's original reading of the receipt?

  23. Nelly said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    As my grandmother (born 1910) used to say: "'Every little helps,"' said the woman who pissed in the sea." I think it's been around for quite a while.

  24. Freddy said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:21 am

    I think in German, this would be perfectly grammatical. A hint?

  25. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:50 am

    @ Daniel Demski So on the Internet every little bit is 3 times as popular?

    If you do the Google string thing using only google.co.uk rather than the whole web you get these figures

    91,000 "every little helps"
    52,800 "every little helps" -tesco
    19,000 "every little bit helps"
    17,700 "every little bit helps" -tesco

    So without Tesco "every little" is 3x more common than "every little bit" in the UK.

  26. ajay said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    From my extensive reading of silly P.G.Wodehouse novels, it appears that there IS some process where an adjective that occurs in a cliche can get noun-like treatment in a playful way. I'm pretty sure that, for example, "ready cash" gets used as "a bit of the old ready" (memory here, not lookup).

    "Doing the dirty" on someone is to betray them. Also, to have "gone to the bad" – to have turned to the disreputable side of life. And to scatter something "to the wide" means to scatter it over a large area. I'm sure more examples will occur to me…

  27. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    I've heard "doing the nasty" as a euphemism for the sexual act.

  28. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    Y'all can do your worst, but ultimately it's all to the good.

    So what to do with NPs where the "adjectives" are themselves modified? A college friend and I came up with "That licks the big sticky" as an innocuous but vaguely obscene-sounding alternative to "That bites the big one". And Buffy TVS nearly succeeded in making "the Big Bad" a normal part of American English.

  29. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    "The Big Easy"

  30. ibob said,

    August 23, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    Just stumbled on this old page. It appears that 'little' in these phrases means essentially the same as German 'bisschen' (or 'bißchen' in old spelling). Now the interesting thing is that 'bisschen' is derived as a diminuitive from the stem 'beißen' or 'Biss' which is of course the English 'bite' — from which 'bit' is derived. The German 'bisschen' can appear in essentially the same phrases as english the English modifier 'little':
    'a little faster' – 'ein bisschen schneller'
    'a little (of this)' – 'ein bisschen (davon)'
    'every little helps' – 'jedes bisschen hilft'
    but
    'a little dog' – 'ein kleiner Hund'
    'a little bit (of this)' – 'ein kleines bisschen (davon)' or: 'ein klein wenig (davon)'

    Notice that the grammatical structure is also reflected by the translation the adjective little translates as 'klein', the modifier as 'bisschen'. Just something curious that came to my mind.

  31. Ginny Moon said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    I found this site looking for the origin of a phrase much used by my Nana (also born 1910, in Throckey, near Newcstle upon Tyne, UK) who was fond of saying "every little helps as Nelly Rain said when she pissed in the sea". I was wondering if anyone else had heard of Nelly Rain?

  32. Warsaw Will said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    It goes back to at least 1742 in "Some Impartial Thoughts on the Wollen Manufacturies", George Andrew Patrick BRITON (pseud.), London 1742

    O'Keefe's Wild Oats was published as early as 1743.

    From 1750 there's the rather enigmatic ' "Every little helps", as the old woman said as she did something in the sea' – The Midwife: or, The Old Woman's Magazine, London 1750

    All at Google Books. There are plenty of examples from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It often appears in inverted commas, as if the writer was consciously quoting an idiom.

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