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Let It Be

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I’m an old boll weevil looking for a home
If you don’t like it you can leave me alone

— Bob Dylan, Silvio

For this past December 30, Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day on his daily e-mail subscription service (not included on his blog, drew a distinction between “leave alone” and “let alone.” Traditionally, says he, “‘leave me alone‘ means ‘leave me by myself (in solitude)’;” whereas by contrast, “‘let me alone‘ means ‘stop bothering me.'” Of course begging the question on which meaning is meant by “bother,” presumably not that of the song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered nor of the related idiom “hot and bothered.” Garner goes on to observe that only “extreme purists” would find fault with use of “leave alone” in a nonliteral sense, that is, employing “leave me alone” to indicate a desire against being bothered. Indeed, he points out that the phrase “leave alone” for that purpose has become far more common than “let alone,” and he provides several recent illustrations. Then of course, he can’t leave the topic alone without mentioning that “let alone” is also used to mean “not to mention” or “much less,” as in the sentence, “‘Let alone’ can mean “stop bothering,’ let alone ‘not to mention'” (my illustration, not his).

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed.) calls the two idioms interchangeable, but “usually at a slightly different sociological level, leave sometimes being fractionally lower in the social register than let.” Language’s social register? Where do I find that? Fowler goes on to give two primary meanings for “leave alone”: (a) “to refrain from disturbing, [to] not interfere with,” with a sample sentence to the effect that one wishes to be left alone while working; and (b) “not to have dealings with,” with a sample phrase to the effect of leaving a matter alone. Fowler then points to the nursery rhyme Little Bo Peep‘s use of the phrase, although there are probably nuances to that version that have not been picked up in any of this, neither by Garner nor by Fowler, the hint of “leave them alone” there being more along the lines of “don’t worry about them.” Fowler does point out that “let alone” is not used for the second of the primary meanings given for “leave alone;” but then he does note the same addendum Garner had, that “let alone” in certain instances picks up its own separate sense of “not to mention, far less or more.”

Of course, sometimes when someone asks to be left alone, that’s exactly what they get: solitude, an aloneness that is undisturbed let alone not the least bit bothered. In which case it really didn’t matter which was meant.

//] - so to speak


Aftermath Afterlife:


Written by macheide

4 January 2015 at 12:45 pm


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