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"She hasn't said but a few words to me since last winter."

or

"She has said but a few words to me since last winter."

Which of these is right?

I think the latter is heard more often, but the former makes more sense to me. It's saying that she hasn't said anything to me except a few words since last winter, whereas I can't break down the second in a similar fashion.

I can also think of sentences constructed in a similar fashion to the second sentence that are in common usage, such as, "I have but one request to make." This doesn't make sense to me, except to the extent that it is idiomatic or uses "but" in a different sense (e.g. "only"?), and I suspect that this is idiomatic. Using "but" with a negative, however, makes more sense to me, if we use it to mean "except".

Quite possibly, I could be wrong in everything I've said above.

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This is an archaic construction, in which but means only. In fact, She has said but few words used to be possible, without an article. All of these constructions are highly marked, either for archaic ostentation or local folksiness. In the appropriate context, either is fine; otherwise not; and if you're not sure what the appropriate context is, don't use either one. –  John Lawler Jun 7 '13 at 20:47
    
@John, can one say "She has said nothing but few words" in which but means except? –  user19148 Jun 7 '13 at 21:16
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That's got an overt negative nothing; that's a Nobbut-Cleft. And it still needs a. –  John Lawler Jun 7 '13 at 21:55
    
@JohnLawler: Thanks for the hyperlink. Not being a grammarian, I did not realize heretofore how complicated the analysis of the English language could be. You have probably forgotten more about English grammar than I'll ever know. That's a compliment, yes? By the way, is there such thing as a therebut-cleft, as in "There but for the grace of God go I"? (A joke.) –  rhetorician Jun 7 '13 at 22:49
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There were an awful lot of varieties of cleft sentences when I started looking close. I'm sure I missed some, but I was focussed on only one construction when I researched them. –  John Lawler Jun 8 '13 at 0:45
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Just as you do, I hear,

"She hasn't said but a few words to me since last winter."

as meaning the same as,

"She hasn't said anything but a few words to me since last winter."

Going on that, I'd say the former is correct, but tentatively, as I don't know exactly where that split in usage happened. I also differ with your common-use anecdote in that I believe the former to be more common in that context. But such is language.

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