They can't do X, let alone Y!
December 11, 2017 10:10 PM   Subscribe

I've always known the sentence structure of "they can't do X, let alone Y" to have X be the more general or smallest-step version of Y - for instance, "they can't even afford 1 book let alone buy the whole library!" or "they can't even tolerate the weakest beer, how can they tolerate moonshine". However, I sometimes see people swap X and Y around to the point that it bugs me. Am I wrong?
posted by divabat to Writing & Language (11 answers total)
I don't think you're wrong, and a quick google confirms:
used to indicate that something is far less likely, possible, or suitable than something else already mentioned.
"he was incapable of leading a bowling team, let alone a country"
posted by smcameron at 10:15 PM on December 11, 2017

You're right, but it's a complicated construction and I'm sure I get it backwards from time to time.
posted by one for the books at 10:15 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

But maybe you meant "more specific" rather than "more general".
posted by smcameron at 10:16 PM on December 11, 2017

You are 100% right, and it's a pet peeve of mine.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:38 PM on December 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

The construction can be reversed and still be logical, provided you leave out "even" or "let alone." Using smcameron's example: "Lead a whole country?! He was incapable of leading a bowling team!"
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 10:39 PM on December 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

You're right.... but it's like irregardless and towing the line and cow towing and etc.
posted by so fucking future at 11:23 PM on December 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Am I wrong?

No. You could care less.
posted by flabdablet at 4:11 AM on December 12, 2017 [18 favorites]

You are right.

I've noticed the incorrect/backward use more frequently of late. It's a pet peeve of mine, too.
posted by jaruwaan at 10:50 AM on December 12, 2017

Similarly, I've noticed "angry, if not furious" used to mean "angry but not furious" as well as "furious". Vexing.

I believe you are right here.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:34 AM on December 12, 2017

You're right.

Another awkward thing in the same vein, which I heard last night: "if we do even half as well as you, we'll be doing the best we can!" It was probably meant to be "we'll be doing great" but the speaker just got a bit lost partway through. It takes what's intended as a compliment and makes it look like the speaker can't really be bothered.

That disconnect between idiom and meaning, and the way the audience interprets the speaker's intent is just maddeningly fascinating. Sometimes saying the (grammatically/syntactically) wrong thing winds up being the right thing.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:30 PM on December 12, 2017

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