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I was wondering if 'spread out over no telling how many years' is syntactically correct (Please see the quote at the bottom). Through the help of another forum, I now know 'no telling how many years' brings the sense 'it's impossible to guess how many years the decoration would be used' into the sentence, semantically interrupting it halfway. 'Over' should take a time noun here, but suddenly, BOOOM! 'no telling.' It is somewhat a sentence with 'there is no telling how many years' embedded in it.

preposition + no telling/ verb (other than 'be' of 'there be') + no telling, conveying the sense of 'there be no telling ...'

Although it might possibly be unorthodox English, I would like to be able to use it. I've tried to come up with example sentences in the other forum in vain. Here are some more I made up after a long thought:

  1. The ancient village existed at the tip of the peninsula for no telling how long, but it was there and prospered for sure.
  2. Seems like the dog came back with no telling what in his mouth. His tongue is all purple now. But we don't know what it was. There is no trace left other than that.

We were ready for Christmas, and we'd got that way inexpensively --- a word you use when you don't want to say cheap. The total investment in decorations, beginning with the free tree, might have reached $20.00 --- a lavish sum spread out over no telling how many years. Decorating today is an ornament of a different color. I Googled "Christmas decorations for sale" and looked at what's available in modern Yuletide festoonery. ("Hang That Tree Ornament" --- 'And the merchant who sold it to you' by William Jeanes, The Saturday Evening Post, Nov/Dec 2011)

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belongs on writers.se –  FumbleFingers Feb 18 '12 at 14:53

2 Answers 2

The phrase

a lavish sum spread out over no telling how many years

comes from a relative clause reduced by Whiz-Deletion, and it's parsed like this:

  • [a lavish sum [(which is) spread out [over [[no telling [how many]] years]]]]

I.e, no telling how many is a constituent, a quantifier, modifying years. So it's grammatical, no worries.

The No telling Wh-Q construction (where Wh-Q is a Wh-question) comes from a common idiom

  • There is no telling wh-Q

which is the same as

  • There is no way to tell/see/determine/find out wh-Q

All of the examples given fit this pattern:

  • no telling how long (it's been there)
  • no telling what (was in my mouth)
  • no telling how many years (it was spread over)

and there are others, of course

  • no telling why (they would do that)
  • no telling where (he left it)
  • no telling when (he left)

etc.

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Hi, John. So you're saying 1 and 2 are okay (perhaps, in informal speech)? –  Sssamy Feb 18 '12 at 6:13
    
Yes, they're OK. And there are similar phrases, like spread out over who knows/nobody knows/I can't say/it's not clear how many years. –  John Lawler Feb 18 '12 at 17:47

In your various examples – "at the tip of the peninsula for no telling how long", "with no telling what in his mouth", "spread out over no telling how many years" – the no telling constructions seem sound; for example, the no telling how many phrase represents a quantity and can modify years.

But there may be better alternatives, depending on the tone you seek to establish. The no telling forms in your examples strike rather informal notes. That may be what you want in example 2, and the tone William Jeanes aimed for, but you might consider rewording the first example as follows.

The ancient village existed at the tip of the peninsula for time out of mind, always there, and without doubt it prospered.

Timeless years is a possible alternative for time out of mind or no telling how long; but perhaps neither of the former two meshes with but it was there and prospered for sure quite as well as does no telling how long, because that phrase introduces an uncertainty (which is addressed by but it was there) and the strong informality of for sure matches that of no telling...

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