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This might be a pretty weird question, given that I'm using awkward grammar. Take into account that I'm trying to play with the language.

The question is, would the following be correct?

Of milk I have but none.

And, would that imply that I have no milk, or that I do not have no milk (so I do have some)?

I understand that normally you would say it like this:

I have no milk.

But, as I said earlier, all I'm doing is playing with the language.

P.S: if this helps at all, I'm working with iambic pentameter.

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Why the “but” in front of “none”? –  tchrist Jun 3 '12 at 0:31
    
Well...taking it out would break the iambic pentameter...so that's why I wrote it that way. –  JCOC611 Jun 3 '12 at 0:32
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Although I'd like to give an answer here / Because the asker is of poet's ilk / Instead I'll leave a comment, for I fear / I must run to the store to buy some milk –  J.R. Jun 3 '12 at 0:47
    
If you're going for an "old fashioned" sound (ironically or not) then by all means use this phrase. If you're not, then I'd suggest finding a less convoluted way of phrasing that you're out of milk. –  JAM Jun 3 '12 at 3:12
    
And if going for archaic feel, you could even say: "Of milk have I but none." –  GEdgar Jun 3 '12 at 3:18

2 Answers 2

up vote 0 down vote accepted

The sentence "Of milk I have but none" is grammatically correct and means you have no milk. But is being used in its sense of merely or only. One could of course say "Of milk I have but little" and the sentence remains correct when little is replaced by none.

Edit: My answer above addresses the grammatical correctness of "but none" as used in the question's example. My answer does not suggest that one should actually so use it or that it has been so used. However, here's a slightly-awry example of such use:

What the two doctors describe as necessary for the citizenry of a republic, our countrymen have but none ... If we now insist on republicanism, no matter whether we can establish it or not, are we going to follow the steps of France, ...

Note, the vast majority of google book links for have but none are irrelevant, being artifacts from comma-punctuated phrasing as in "More intelligent readers you may have, but none more grateful than ...".

The phrase merely none, on the other hand, has numerous google book links where merely none is used precisely for the purpose of meaning none at all. Many of the links are repeated references to identical passages in various printings, and many are punctuation artifacts, so only a few dozen of the several hundred links are relevant, but in those few dozen cases, merely none means none at all.

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-1. While it might possibly work as a poetic device, this can't be right as a general principle. "Merely" or "only" indicates there is something there to assess: "merely a little", "merely a trace". "Merely none" just doesn't work. Or is this another American/British difference? –  Andrew Leach Jun 3 '12 at 11:52
    
@AndrewLeach, I've added a comment about that, and about merely none meaning none at all. –  jwpat7 Jun 3 '12 at 18:30
    
Having looked through quite a number of pages of links for "merely none", I disagree that any recent, native-English publications use "merely none" to mean "none at all". Most use it for comparison, as in "The assertion is confidently made by Atheists and Pantheists, that the universe has no boundaries; not merely none which we can see, but that it actually fills all immensity..." –  Andrew Leach Jun 3 '12 at 23:03

Of friends, I have but a few. Of enemies, I have none.

But = Only

Therefore, you cannot use 'but' when you are speaking about an ultimate 'none'.

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I like your answer, only I still wonder if a poet could get away with "but none" ('twould nary be the first time a poet twisted his locution). –  J.R. Jun 3 '12 at 10:23

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