word order (was Re: Random DWJ discovery of the day)

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Thu Mar 31 06:55:46 EST 2005


Philip made some sense out of my slightly muddled comments on word order:

>Minnow pointed out:
>
>> I don't know how subtle Colin/Dorian was meaning, but "I just want a
>> verdict" and "I want a just verdict" and "I want just a verdict" mean
>> quite different things.  And "I only care for money" and "I care only
>> for money" and "I care for only money" are three quite distinct sorts
>> of interest in dosh, but I'd hate to try to explain *why*, or wherein
>> precisely the difference lies.
>
>I think there is a lot of room for interpretation, particularly of the
>second set of examples, but here is my take:
>
>As regards the verdict, it is simply that "Just" qualifies the word
>immediately after it.
>
>"I just want a verdict" - all you are interested in is that a verdict is
>reached.  You don't care in whose favour, or what is done as a result of
>this.
>
>"I want a just verdict" - here "just" is a pure adjective, qualifying
>"verdict".  You want the verdict to be equitable and fair.
>
>"I want just a verdict" - you want the verdict to be reached, but you
>don't want all the stuff that follows from this.

That does say what I was struggling with, yes; thanks!

>As regards the money, "only" can qualify the word after it _or_ the word
>before it.  Some pedants prefer to have "only" qualify the word before
>it, but I have never understood why.  Anyway,
>
>"I only care for money" could be construed that you are the only person
>who bothers to keep within budget, but is more likely to mean that
>everything you do stems from your interest in money.

If it were that I am the only person caring, that gives yet another order,
I think: "Only I care for money" ("and the rest of the idiots in this
commune are so unworldly that they forget we have to pay the rates on the
property", unspoken).

>"I care only for money" means that you do all sorts of things, whether
>for money or not, but it's the money that motivates you.

Depends on emphasis, though, see below.

>"I care for only money" means that money motivates you for its own sake,
>not for the advantages it brings.

Again, the emphasis may change this.

>Anyway, that's my take.

That does seem to make a rule, doesn't it, and for that reason I fully
expect a burst of exceptions to that rule to emerge shortly, because
*nothing* in English is ever allowed to be *that* simple!

A lot would depend on the emphasis, in speech: in "I care for only money"
there's a world of difference between "*I* care for only money" and "I
*care* for only money" and "I care for *only* money" and "I care for only
*money*".  There's even "*I* care for only *money*".  This is probably the
reason for about half the flame-wars on usenet, because when it is written
down without the screamers round it an English sentence can easily be very
insulting where no insult is intended by the writer, who "hears" the
emphases as s/he writes and doesn't notice the other places emphasis could
be put.  :-(

How about the most well-known split infinitive in the language?  "boldly to
go" and "to go boldly" do have very slightly different meanings, which is
why "to boldly go" is a cop-out whether one thinks it is a sin to split an
infinitive or whether one doesn't.  I suppose the first one applies to the
person doing the going (he or she is behaving boldly by doing it at all)
and the second to the action itself (with knocking knees and trembling
bowels our hero flung himself into the fray, to quote Steven Collier, but
nevertheless managed to give the appearance of boldness as he did so --
with a one-pint milk saucepan as his only weapon).  Does that have a simple
rule Philip can offer (and someone else knock about a bit)?

Minnow



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