All let alone some

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Edward Rothstein, "A Reflection of Greatness, Blurred", NYT 8/25/2011:

Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American.

Reader MH, who sent it in, feels that "let alone" is pointing in the wrong direction. Is it?

In general, the implication of "f(X, let alone Y)" is that Y is a more extreme value than X is, on some dimension defined by f. In fact, normally you need to pass through X, in some sense, to get to Y.

Some typical recent examples from the New York Times:

The team cannot even be certain who will be healthy and performing well a week from now, let alone in a month.

Y (= the status "in a month") is even further from certainty than X (= the status "a week from now"). And the team and its players will certainly pass through next week on their way to next month.

People go their whole career and not even go to the playoffs, let alone the World Series.

Y (= going to "the World Series") is a rarer accomplishment than X (= "go[ing] the playoffs"). And getting to the World Series requires getting to the playoffs first.

Boys' aversion to reading, let alone to novels, has been worsening for years.

Y (= "[Boys' aversion] to novels") is even stronger (more worsened) than X (= "boys' aversion to reading"). And again, reading a novel implies reading in general.

As this last example illustrates, it's fairly common for the more extreme value Y to be a particularly extreme instance of a more general category denoted by X. Some other NYT examples where this is true:

Hunting anyone in a sparsely-populated desert country three times the size of France is a daunting task, let alone a well-connected former head of state with access to gold and guns.

Here Y="a well-connected former head of state" is a particularly hard-to-find instance of X="anyone".

It’s not for the international community, let alone NATO, to tell them what to do.

Y="NATO" is a particularly ill-suited-to-command part of X="the international community".

It almost seems surprising that Spain has ever won anything, let alone last summer's World Cup, given the way the core of its team acts toward one another.

Y="last summer's World Cup" is an especially extreme example of X="anything" that a national soccer team might win.

So let's look back at

the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American.

This seems backwards, since here X ("a black American") is a particular kind of Y ("an American"), rather than the other way around.

But in fact, I think that this is actually what Rothstein meant.  He's telling us that in this case there's a scale of being-attacked-for-not-choosing-__, on which "a black American" << "[any] American". That is, the foundation is even more likely to be attacked for not choosing an American of any sort, than for not choosing a black American. And this is plausibly true.

The trouble is, it takes a little while to figure it out.

I can see at least two reasons for the difficulty. One is the fact that the particular-to-general relationship is the opposite of the usual one for this construction. And the second is that the sentence-initial adjunct, mentioning the (Chinese) sculptor who was actually chosen,  suggests a different scale of expected ethnic suitability

Chinese << any American << black American

on which the let alone relationship in the main clause does seem to be projected backwards.

For more on this same sort of thing, see "Much less / or even", 2/24/2011.


  1. pjharvey said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 6:39 am

    The abrupt nature of the article before the more particular case doesn't seem to work for me. Had it been, 'let alone any American' the cadence perhaps would help get the point across better.

  2. noahpoah said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    It still seems backward to me, though it's difficult to say exactly why. How can the foundation be more likely to be attacked for not choosing an American of any sort than for not choosing one of a subset of Americans of any sort? That is, not choosing a black American of any sort is just a particular kind of not choosing an American of any sort, and so should earn the same attack as would the more general case.

    [(myl) Free your mind from the details of this case, and you'll find it easy to answer your own question. For example, the set of biologists is a strict subset of the set of scientists as a whole, which is a strict subset of the set of members of the general public. Now ask yourself, would the White House staff would be likely to be attacked for not nominating a biologist as presidential science advisor? Not really. Would they be likely to be criticized for not nominating a scientist of any sort, but rather (say) a corporate lawyer? Absolutely.]

  3. Melissa Fox said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    I'm with the original objectors.

    Modification/intensification works the same way, surely. There's a radio commercial I've been hearing a lot lately (recency illusion ahoy!) that goes, "Okay, Washington. You've asked us, and even begged us nicely, so we're going to go ahead and ___" (I forget what the commercial is advertising, actually). Makes me cringe every time I hear it, not because asked – even – begged is backwards – it's not – but because it feels so, so wrong to me to have 'nicely' modifying 'begged' instead of 'asked'. But I suppose "you've asked us nicely, and even begged us, so …" doesn't really scan.

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    I think the cause of the confusion is that there is a negation in there ("…attacked for not having chosen…). The scope of negations in natural language is considerably more fluid than in formal logic, so it is unclear whether the comparison implied by "let alone" is being negated as well (until you decide the go with the choice that makes sense).

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    (Or, as peevers are wont to, deliberately go with the choice that doesn't make sense).

  6. Mr Punch said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    I agree with the original objectors. This may be in some sense logical and grammatical, but it's not idiomatic. What's called for here is "or even."

  7. Ellen K. said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    Okay, I buy your reasoning that "let alone" doesn't point the wrong way. It's still a badly written sentence.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    I think my problem with the example is that for me at least, "let alone" is a sort of negative-polarity item. Thus I couldn't say, *"The journalist was attacked for misrepresentation, let alone libel" or *"The broker was accused of unethical practices, let alone fraud." Reversing the nouns for the misdeeds doesn't help. If the sentence is comparing the misdeeds of not choosing a black American and, even worse, not choosing an American at all (in which case a second "not having chosen" is understood), then it's parallel to the above sentences and doesn't work for me. The "not" is part of the phrases compared by the "let alone" and isn't available to trigger it.

    I see that in one of MYL's examples from the NYT, the negative-polarity trigger is "surprising", which also triggers an "ever", so the negative polarity is clear. I think "daunting", from another example, works the same way.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    I am still inclined to agree that "let alone" points the wrong way. I agree with myl's point that the sentence wants to say he is more likely to be attacked for not picking an American at all than for simply not picking a black American (although a black American is the most ideal candidate). But it still seems backwards to me.

    I am picturing this visually: a Venn diagram with a big circle "Americans", and within it a smaller circle, "Black Americans". This is analogous, I think, to a circular archery target. "Black Americans" is the circle at the center of the target — the most ideal point to hit. But minimally you want to hit the target somewhere. You would suffer a little blame for not hitting the center, a lot for not hitting the target at all. Given that, which of these makes more sense?

    1. He didn't hit the target (at all), let alone the center of the target.

    2. He didn't hit the center of the target, let alone the target (at all).

    To me, 1 is the one that makes sense. But even if you can argue that 2 makes some sense, are you prepared to argue that 1 is wrong? Or is this construction such that it makes sense either way?

  10. Nick Fleisher said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    Perhaps the difficulty involves constructing the scale of "being-attacked-for-not-choosing-__". If you can be attacked for not choosing a black American as sculptor, can you then surely also be attacked for not choosing an American? (cf. If you don't know which players will be healthy a week from now, you surely also don't know which ones will be healthy a month from now.) I'm not so sure in this case. It seems rather easy to adopt the assumption that the foundation should have chosen a black American as sculptor; but the assumption that they should have chosen an American, I would imagine, is not independently available for many readers (this despite the fact that the first assumption entails the second). That is, it is easy to assume the following: the foundation should have chosen a black American as sculptor, but if they didn't, then all bets are off. And "let alone" seems sensitive to this, which is interesting.

    Maziar Toosarvandani's 2010 Berkeley dissertation contains lots of relevant discussion/analysis of "let alone", along with many examples in which the two conjuncts are related by logical (not just pragmatic scalar) entailment.

  11. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    The original seems fine to me, because it fits with the general Y implies X pattern. Keep in mind that there's an elided "not having chosen" in Y. It's "not having chosen a black American, let alone [not having chosen] an American". Not choosing an American implies not choosing a black American.

  12. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    Although now I'm not so sure. You can use the same reasoning for the playoffs / World Series case, and that one definitely seems wrong reversed. On the other hand, I'd read the NYT article before seeing it here, and I didn't notice anything strange about it then.

  13. Agustin said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    In general, the implication of "f(X, let alone Y)" is that Y is a more extreme value than X is, on some dimension defined by f. In fact, normally you need to pass through X, in some sense, to get to Y.

    I think that it is unclear what is meant by "Y is a more extreme value than X is": it is not always clear what extreme means. For example, from my point of view as a human being, is an atom or a star more extreme in size?

    I would describe it as "(Y is a subset of X) OR (Y is less likely than X)".

  14. John Lawler said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    For those interested, the classic work on the let alone construction is Fillmore, Charles J., Paul Kay, and Mary Catherine O'Connor. 1988. Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone, Language 64:501-538.

    [(myl) Thanks, John! I was apparently not paying attention in 1988…]

  15. Henning Makholm said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    Um, scratch my negation theory from further up. On further thought, "let alone" always seems to require having an (at least semantically implied) negation to attach to, so the mere presence of one here should not be able to create ambiguity.

    I now tend to think the sentence is just wrong. Its only saving grace would be if we interpret

    bla bla not bla bla X let alone Y

    to mean, generally,

    bla bla not bla bla X. And it's even stronger the case that bla bla not bla bla Y

    But I think that's a too broad reading, because "let alone" also carries the connotation that the reason why bla bla not bla bla Y is even stronger the case is that Y logically implies X. But "American" does not imply "black American".

    Now, contrapositively, "not having chosen an American" does imply "not having chosen a black American" but that analysis won't work because it would require subordinating the only available negation to the "let alone", which however itself wants to be subordinated to a negation. And they can't be subordinate to each other — natural language is not predicate logic, but it's not that flexible.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    @Henning Makholm: I was interested to see that Fillmore, Kay, and O'Connor describe let alone as a negative-polarity item of a particularly tolerant type. Here are their two examples of that unusual tolerance:

    "(18) A: Do you think anyone will mind if I take my clothes off before I jump into this quaint little water hazard?

    "B: Look, around here you can get arrested for going BAREFOOT, let alone walking around NAKED.

    "(19) A: For Janey's birthday party I'm thinking of serving Coca Cola, but I'm afraid little Seymour's parents will be annoyed. They seem like health-oriented types.

    "B: Don't worry. Little Seymour's parents let him drink WHISKEY, let alone COKE."

    I don't find either of those grammatical.

  17. Bob Moore said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    I recall a talk that Paul Kay gave at Stanford in the early 1980s on the meaning of "let alone". I remember nothing about what he said, but I do remember the quip by George MIller, who was visiting, "I don't understand 'let' alone, let alone 'let alone'."

  18. Russell said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    [Shameless plug]

    In an exploratory project me and some other folk, directed by the above-mentioned Fillmore, did some annotation of idioms and constructions, including "let alone." We were actually surprised by how many instances there were that were not in NPI contexts. You can view the annotations here:

    Just search or scroll down to "let alone" in the left frame.

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    Jerry Friedman hits the nail on the head.

    As Jerry observes, and as is explained in the page to which Russell links immediately above this comment, the construction with ‘let alone’ is generally licensed by a polarity trigger. The most obvious polarity trigger is ‘not’, but there are many others. Russell’s link mentions ‘too’ and ‘barely’, while Jerry mentions ‘surprising’ and ‘daunting’.

    Now, I think the difficulty with Edward Rothstein’s words is that the constituent “not having chosen a black American, let alone an American” misleads the reader into reading the ‘not’ as the polarity trigger for the ‘let alone’ construction. But it is not the polarity trigger. As Jerry points out, Rothstein is trying to say, “The foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone not having chosen an American.” That is what Rothstein means, and in my view that is what he ought to have said for the sake of clarity. And the polarity trigger licensing the construction is the verb ‘attacked’. It can act as a polarity trigger because “A attacks B for doing X” is like “A says that B ought not to do X”.

    For me, as for Jerry, ‘let alone’ without a polarity trigger is ungrammatical. The page to which Russell links gives the example, “That will lift a ton, let alone the fifty pounds you usually have to transport.” But for me that is ungrammatical.

    From reading the comments above, it is clear that different individuals have different standards for accepting a word as a polarity trigger. Rothstein uses ‘attacked’ as a polarity trigger and that works for me. Likewise the example that Jerry quotes with ‘arrested’ as a polarity trigger works for me. (“You can get arrested for X” is like “You ought not to do X”. Jerry’s other example “Little Seymour’s parents let him drink WHISKEY, let alone COKE.” doesn’t work for me as I don’t recognise anything in it to act as a polarity trigger.

    Thanks, Mark: a fascinating post.

  20. Paul Kay said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    I'm with Eric P. Smith: it's all about what works as negative polarity trigger for you in this particular context. I don't get attack as a trigger here and, consequently, I don't accept Eric's example of a clear version of what Rothstein meant to say, “The foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone not having chosen an American.” If you like that sentence I would guess you can get Mark's reading of the original. I don't and I can't. On the other hand, in the context in which it was presented, which is about what a kid's parents will NOT permit (See Jerry Friedman's comment), I have no trouble with “Little Seymour’s parents let him drink WHISKEY, let alone COKE,” which doesn't work for Eric. My justifying gloss of that might be, "“Little Seymour’s parents don't forbid him to drink WHISKEY, let alone COKE.” I'm convinced that Eric's got the right analysis in saying that the tricky thing here is that attack has to be taken as the trigger rather than not. And I also agree with his implication that different non-negative verbs in different contexts seem affect different people differently with regard to their perceived semantic closeness to concepts that would normally be expressed with an overt negative.

    (Bob Moore, the reason you can't remember a word I said on that occasion may be because it was Chuck Fillmore who gave the talk, although I was there and may have responded to some questions.)

    Thanks, John, for "classic."

  21. Herman Burchard said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

    Not to criticize LL, let alone the Foundation, but I think the monument is not a good likeness of the honored man. Presumably not a relevant issue for this thread, let alone objectionable as critique of art, an autonomous aspiration, this comment is being entered reluctantly.

  22. maidhc said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 2:11 am

    I find it weird for another reason beside the ones given above. If the monument were designed by an American, but not a black American, it would most likely be designed by a white American. And I think it's conceivable that you could find people who would think it would be more disrespectful to Dr. King to have his monument designed by a white American than by someone who's not a American.

    In the structure of "ethnic suitability", some people might propose the model:

    white non-American* < white American < white non-American** < non-white non-American < non-white American < black American

    *from the long list of countries with a disgraceful history of racism
    **from the short list of countries with no significant history of racism, like, um, Iceland?

    The strange construction doesn't really make it clear if this interpretation is to be excluded from the discussion.

  23. » Blog Archive » mostly links today said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    […] Language Log » All let alone some […]

  24. Bob Ladd said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    For what it's worth, today's (27 Aug.) Guardian has a short piece on the cancellation (because of hurricane Irene) of the dedication ceremony of the King memorial. The piece contains this sentence: "Some have criticised the foundation for failing to hire an African-American sculptor – or even an American – to create the memorial." Maybe the writer read this LL column (in particular Mr. Punch's comment) first?

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    I'm grateful to Eric P. Smith for the comments and kind words, and to Russell and to Paul Kay for discussing their work here.

    I was definitely surprised by the number of examples at Russell et al.'s site of let alone without anything annotated as a trigger—10 out of 53. Some of them had what some might accept as negative-polarity triggers (were opposed) or triggers that are good enough for let alone (boycotting), but others didn't. Some of them might have had the trigger that Fillmore, Kay, and O'Connor argue for—contradiction of a previous utterance—but some didn't even look like that was possible. I might even have accepted some of them, but I quickly got grammatical saturation.

  26. Henning Makholm said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Thanks, Jerry. The "polarity" concept was indeed what I was grasping for.

  27. Paul Kay said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    I think there are two kinds of exceptions to the generalization that let alone is a negative polarity item (NPI).

    The first is the sort of thing I was talking about in my earlier comment, in which the context allows the speaker to interpret a higher predicate which is syntactically positive as semantically negative. An example from the FrameNet corpus that Russell cites, followed by a justifying negative gloss in 'single quotes', would be:

    4. In Germany in 1939, A british Gentile, let alone a Jew, knew what to expect of the Nazi authorities and got out if they could.
    4'. In Germany in 1939, A british Gentile, let alone a Jew, was not safe in Germany.

    The second kind of exception is grammatically anathema to me, but familiar nonetheless. In these examples I could readily substitute never mind for let alone. There's no notional negation at all, but two of the properties of ordinary NPI let alone are conserved: the proposition including the first conjunct (pragmatically) entails the second, and the content of the second proposition is taken to be 'on the floor'. An example from the FrameNet corpus is

    11. The advice of the church 's moral experts and authoritative clerics was thus pertinent to the entire population of the world, let alone that of Ireland.

    If the example is weird for you — as it is for me — try substituting for let alone either never mind or not to mention. As in a normal NPI let alone sentence, the proposition including the referent of the first conjunct pragmatically entails that of the second: advice pertinent to the whole world is a fortiori pertinent to Ireland. Also, I would bet my bottom dollar that some proposition involving information relevant to Ireland was on the floor preceding the utterance of example 11. This kind of example thus pretty much exemplifies normal let alone with the negative polarity property stripped away.

  28. a George said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    I have obviously not read enough uses of "let alone" to be a real, statistics-based judge, but to me the only meaning of that expression is "not even", and only those expressions where I can substitute that make any sense to me. Would a translating engine do better? I think that "Never mind" or "not to mention" have something of the same spirit.

  29. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American.

    I cannot edit the sentence to read naturally with its intended meaning, unless I substitute “not even” for “let alone”. The best I can do with minimal modifications lends strong credence to negative polarity theory:

    Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone a non-American.

    The most minimal edit I can come up with to remove the surprise is to substitute “let alone” and “an” with “or even” and “any”:

    Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, or even any American.

    That suggests it is possible to do even better with “nor even” with more intrusive editing:

    Following the appointment of Mr. Lei, the foundation was attacked for choosing a sculptor who is neither black nor even an American.

    Notice how the negation has shifted even further in this construction, narrowing its scope. What is stated is not what choice the foundation didn’t make, but what properties their choice didn’t have.

  30. Dan M. said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

    @Paul Kay, et al.

    I think the negative-polarity requirement for "let alone" can be retained by understanding that positive propositions can be negated negative propositions.

    I admit that the example with Catholic influence on Ireland sees somewhat unnatural, but I would attribute that to lack of context. I think the example of lifting capacity is pretty clear though:

    That will lift a ton, let alone the fifty pounds you usually have to transport.

    can become, in a plausible context

    A: This crane looks too flimsy for what I need; can I look at a bigger model?
    B: That will lift won't break under load with a ton, let alone the fifty pounds you usually have to transport.

    (P.S. Thank you LL for the html preview so that I can safely use blockquotes.)

  31. Dan M. said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    Drat. But despite the preview showing the use of the <strikeout> tag, my posted comment does not have "will lift" struck out.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    @Dan M.: Some context for the quotation on Ireland is available here. It doesn't make the "let alone" more acceptable to me, but the comments have made it clear that people differ a lot on this subject.

    (Very long URL that's not working in the preview. I hope it works in the post. The preview should come with a warning: "Don't trust this.")

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    Maybe this will work:;jsessionid=FAB3A56854F83B5175263052E1D1BE3B?c=learningcollocations&a=g&rt=r&sa=RetrieveSample&s=RetrieveSample&s1.corpusType=bnc&s1.corpusName=bnc&s1.ngram=the%20very%20fabric&s1.query=&s1.startNum=1&s1.numPerPage=30

  34. Dan M. said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    Yep, your link does make the Ireland case analogous to the one-ton load case. The meaning in context is that the first choice (a) that no part of the world could ignore Catholic teaching fully entails (b) that Ireland could not ignore them.

    For my part, I find these perfectly grammatical of "let alone".

  35. Eric P Smith said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    It is now two months since this post, and so it may be that no one will ever read this comment, but I have to record it.
    I just heard half an hour ago on "Match of the Day 2" (a soccer programme on BBC TV), “Fulham will be disappointed that they haven’t got 3 points, let alone 1 point.” That is isomorphic with “the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American,” the subject of this post. It means, “Fulham will be disappointed that they haven’t got 3 points, let alone that they haven’t even got 1 point”. Just as the polarity trigger in the subject of this post was not “not” but “attack”, so the polarity trigger in what I heard today was not “haven’t” but “disappointed”.

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