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#1
Old 09-22-2005, 08:59 AM
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Grammar, much less idioms

In a recent thread, a poster said something like "I've never been near a hurricane, much less a tornado". This type of phrase has always bothered me because most of the time I see it in print, it seems backwards. People write "x much less y" where the scale of x is greater than y. It seems like it should be reversed, like "I've never eaten a steak, much less a whole cow" rather than "I've never eaten a cow, much less a steak".

Am I just parsing the meaning wrong? Is the use of this phrase rigid enough to even warrant a rule, or is it just something people say without thinking like the acceptance of "I could care less".
#2
Old 09-22-2005, 09:04 AM
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Doesn't it depend whether the person thinks hurricanes or tornadoes are more severe?

I agree with you about the use, though. And I want to stab people who say "I could care less."
#3
Old 09-22-2005, 09:15 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by csharpmajor
Doesn't it depend whether the person thinks hurricanes or tornadoes are more severe?
Absolutely. I guess I should have provided more context for that example. The thread was about getting one's mind around the scale of hurricanes, so I inferred that the poster thought hurricanes were worse (at least bigger if not more dangerous). I didn't want to link to the thread because I don't want to look like I'm specifically picking on that poster. That post just triggered a nagging question I had.
#4
Old 09-22-2005, 09:27 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by micco
In a recent thread, a poster said something like "I've never been near a hurricane, much less a tornado".
Reading this, I imagine that the writer thinks a tornado is "greater" than a hurricane in the sense of being more intense. Which it is...a tornado can register much faster winds than a hurricane, though it is physically smaller. ON the other hand, if that's not what they meant, then that would be a problem.

Truth be told, I don't think I've ever heard anyone use this idiom incorrectly.
#5
Old 09-22-2005, 09:30 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by micco
In a recent thread, a poster said something like "I've never been near a hurricane, much less a tornado". This type of phrase has always bothered me because most of the time I see it in print, it seems backwards. People write "x much less y" where the scale of x is greater than y. It seems like it should be reversed, like "I've never eaten a steak, much less a whole cow" rather than "I've never eaten a cow, much less a steak".

Am I just parsing the meaning wrong? Is the use of this phrase rigid enough to even warrant a rule, or is it just something people say without thinking like the acceptance of "I could care less".
Examples of usage from dictionary.com
Quote:
Idioms:
much/still less
I'm not blaming anyone, much less you.

conj.
“Happiness is an emotion not often spoken of at the magazine, much less experienced” (Brendan Gill).

"He rarely talks about his outside activities, much less his family."
The earliest record of this idiom is in John Milton's Paradise Lost (1671): "The world thou hast not seen, much less her glory."
The usage does seem to indicate that the greater amount comes first.
#6
Old 09-22-2005, 09:53 AM
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I've never heard it used backwards. I have encountered examples like this one where it's not obvious which facet of the two items is being compared, and depending on which facet is meant, the wholeidiom could be read as correct or as backwards.

My interpretation of the tornado hurricane OP was that that sentence was referring to wind speeds. As in, "I've never been in a 150 mph huricane, much less a 200 mph tornado, so I'm not sure ..."

And for that intent, that OP has it correct, in agreement with this OP's take on the "much less" idiom in general.
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#7
Old 09-22-2005, 10:50 AM
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Thanks all. I think my example was bad because the hurricane/tornado situation could be interpreted either way (out of context of that thread). However, I see this frequently where the scales are unambiguous but the terms are reversed in the phrase. I see this particularly in a couple of local newspapers. I feel like I see it used incorrectly very frequently, but that's probably selective memory since this is a pet peeve.

I don't have a cite handy, but seeing it in print in a reasonably well-edited publication is what made me think I was wrong. The fact that I'm not wrong and they really are using it incorrectly makes me even more sad.
#8
Old 09-22-2005, 11:45 AM
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Yes, I've also noticed that some people use this location incorrectly. You have a sharp eye for spotting it.
#9
Old 09-22-2005, 11:47 AM
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Yes, I've also noticed that some people use this locution incorrectly. You have a sharp eye for spotting it.
#10
Old 09-22-2005, 12:06 PM
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Huh. I've always thought of this phrase as having to due with occurance rather than strength.

"I've never been near a hurricane, much less a tornado" - tornados are more comon (usually) than hurricanes so the speaker would have been more likely to have been near a tornado.
#11
Old 09-22-2005, 01:17 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tremorviolet
Huh. I've always thought of this phrase as having to due with occurance rather than strength.

"I've never been near a hurricane, much less a tornado" - tornados are more comon (usually) than hurricanes so the speaker would have been more likely to have been near a tornado.
It can be frequency or degree or any number of things, such as liklihood, depending on the proposition of the main clause. Yes, the hurricane/tornado statement is about frequency. But when the main clause has "never," the statement isn't meant to be logical. How can something occur less frequently than never?

But seeing as it's an "idiom" in the first place, I don't see why everyone wants it to follow some kind of mathmatical logic. It's not an expression of fact, but of affect. When someone says, "I've never been near a hurricane, much less a tornado," they mean to say, "I've never been near a hurricane, and I feel it's even more unlikely that I would ever be near a tornado." This implies that the person perhaps frequents areas where hurricanes occur, but doesn't feel like he'll ever go to places where tornados occur. You can't say whether a person's feelings or perceptions are true or false. So in this case, it has nothing to do with the strength of winds in hurricanes and tornados.

In the previously posted example:

"I'm not blaming anyone, much less you."

Translation: "I'm not placing blame, but if I were to place blame, I most certainly would not blame you. It would be someone else."

You might say that this is a quesion of degree, in that the speaker is implying that everyone else is more blameworthy than the person spoken to. But that's not really the point. The speaker is really saying, " I don't believe you could ever be the one to blame."

So it's a phase which expresses perceptions about one situation or thing vs. another or others. It's not about mathematics or logic.

It also is a very efficient way to do this, which is why people use it so much.

The sentence, "I've never eaten a steak, much less a whole cow," is rather silly. It's like saying, "I don't eat beef, not even whole cows."
#12
Old 09-22-2005, 02:28 PM
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Quote:
The usage does seem to indicate that the greater amount comes first.
Except that those examples all have the "greater" one second, with "greater" meaning the stronger statement. "I'm blaming you", for example, is a stronger sentence than "I'm blaming someone", since "you" implies "someone". So the stronger statement comes second. The OP's situation is a bit different, since a hurricane does not necessarily imply tornadoes, but I think a hurricane is probably the stronger statement nonetheless, in which case the OP is correct and that usage is wrong. But the person making the statement might not have known that, or they might have been referring to some sense in which tornadoes are stronger (the windspeeds, for instance), in which case the usage the OP noticed is wrong.

tremorviolet, your analysis illustrates why the phrase works the way it does. The correct usage would be "I've never been near a tornado, much less a hurricane". To break that down: I've never been near a tornado. Since tornadoes are much more common than hurricanes, I have been near hurricanes much less than I have been near tornadoes. Therefore, I have never been near a hurricane, either.
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#13
Old 09-22-2005, 03:14 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chronos
Except that those examples all have the "greater" one second, with "greater" meaning the stronger statement. "I'm blaming you", for example, is a stronger sentence than "I'm blaming someone", since "you" implies "someone". So the stronger statement comes second. The OP's situation is a bit different, since a hurricane does not necessarily imply tornadoes, but I think a hurricane is probably the stronger statement nonetheless, in which case the OP is correct and that usage is wrong. But the person making the statement might not have known that, or they might have been referring to some sense in which tornadoes are stronger (the windspeeds, for instance), in which case the usage the OP noticed is wrong.
But the more numerous amount is the one that comes first, from the general to the particular.
#14
Old 09-22-2005, 03:27 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by guizot
The sentence, "I've never eaten a steak, much less a whole cow," is rather silly. It's like saying, "I don't eat beef, not even whole cows."
Grendel: The most I've ever eaten in one sitting was five cows. How about you?
Zippy the Pinhead: I've never eaten a steak, much less a whole cow.
#15
Old 09-22-2005, 03:59 PM
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I'd consider it to be the more intense statement that comes second. Being quantitatively greater isn't necessarily the key determinant.

For example :

"I'm not blaming anyone, much less you." (To blame you would be particularly bad for you.)

"He rarely talks about his outside activities, much less his family." (To talk about his family would be allowing a greater degree of intimacy.)

"I've never even seen the sea, much less the Riviera." (The sea is larger than the Riviera, but the Riviera is reputedly a greater experience.)

"I've never killed one person, much less a whole city full." (A straight example, just for one.)


So the hurricane/tornado difference depends on what the speaker's perception. In this case, it can be a slightly confusing statement to make as it could go both ways.

"I've never even been in love, much less had sex." (personally I'd phrase it the other way 'round.)

"I haven't visited London, much less Paris." (depends a lot on the speaker's situation.)
#16
Old 09-22-2005, 05:04 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by micco
Grendel: The most I've ever eaten in one sitting was five cows. How about you?
Zippy the Pinhead: I've never eaten a steak, much less a whole cow.
Okay, you're right. I take it back. I was wrong. It's more like saying, "I don't eat whole cows, not even a steak."
Quote:
Originally Posted by panamajack
"I'm not blaming anyone, much less you." (To blame you would be particularly bad for you.)

"He rarely talks about his outside activities, much less his family." (To talk about his family would be allowing a greater degree of intimacy.)

"I've never even seen the sea, much less the Riviera." (The sea is larger than the Riviera, but the Riviera is reputedly a greater experience.)

"I've never killed one person, much less a whole city full." (A straight example, just for one.)


So the hurricane/tornado difference depends on what the speaker's perception. In this case, it can be a slightly confusing statement to make as it could go both ways.

"I've never even been in love, much less had sex." (personally I'd phrase it the other way 'round.)

"I haven't visited London, much less Paris." (depends a lot on the speaker's situation.)
In some of these examples, the main clause is a whole set, and the phrase is a subset, but in others of the example it's somewhat the opposite, and in another, their not even the same class.
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