X, let alone Y

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"No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken," said Trent Mays after he was found guilty of disseminating a nude photo of a minor, according to this account of the notorious Steubenville rape case.

If that is what Mays said, then he has apparently internalized the wrong meaning of the idiom let alone. He used it as if it had the inverse of its usual meaning. In other words, he apparently thinks that let alone means or even.

I say if that is what Mays said, because this Los Angeles Times blog post by Robin Abcarian quotes him differently, as saying "No pictures should have been taken, let alone sent around." Did Abcarian correct Mays? Or did CNN misquote him? I don't know. But it doesn't really matter: the difference between getting the relation the right way round and getting it reversed is what is of interest here.

I am making one presupposition: I assume everyone agrees that distribution via social media of nude photos of a drunken naked 16-year-old girl being assaulted and raped should count as even more callous and heinous than merely taking the photos.

Under that assumption, Mays could have said "No pictures should have been taken, let alone been sent out," and that would have been coherent.

Alternatively he could have said, "No pictures should have been sent out, or even been taken," and that would also have been compatible with the relative degrees of heinousness of the two acts.

But the version given in the first line of this post is not coherent. The key thing about the meaning of let alone is that it has to connect a first half that is lower on some dimension to a second half that is higher on that dimension. A few coherent examples from other stories in today's news:

The idiom let alone is the subject of a long and interesting paper by the Berkeley construction grammar developers Charles J. Fillmore, Paul Kay, and Mary Catherine O'Connor: "Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: the case of let alone," in Language 64 (1988), 501–538. They investigate the behavior of this curious phrase in great detail, and show that some surprising theoretical conclusions about syntax emerge out of a close study of its semantics and pragmatics. (See also a relevant post about the idiom by Mark Liberman here, and also an earlier post about a closely related semantic issue.)

As usual in such a case, the question left in many linguists' minds on seeing the subtlety and complexity of such things made explicit is: How on earth do we learn anything so subtle and complex?

It can't be built into the brain innately: let alone only occurs in English, so we're not talking about some abstract universal property that all languages share.

All we have to work on when learning it is occasionally hearing people say "Shouldn't have done X, let alone Y," or "Didn't have an X, let alone a Y," for various different choices of X and Y.

The wonder is not that Trent Mays got it wrong (if indeed he did); the wonder is that any of us ever get it right.

Postscript: Two Language Log readers (Christian Weisgerber and Timo Bucholz) have written to me to point out that the German idiom geschweige denn is used in the same way as let alone and with the same sense. So there might at least be a natural human tendency to perceive the logical relation involved and assign a form of words to denote it. Then what has be learned is merely that (if you are in an English-speaking community) let alone denotes it, or (if you are in a German-speaking community) geschweige denn denotes it.

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