I think of this sentence as of a contracted version of She didn't so much say the word as [she] hissed it, treating as as a conjunction connecting two clauses. But this would require the past tense of hiss in the original sentence.

Another approach is to assume that did has its scope over both verbs: She did (not so much say the word as hiss it).

So should we use the past or the present tense in such cases, or both are acceptable?

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    You're tying yourself up in knots. Is the question about the idiom? About tense? About grammar? The sentence “She didn't so much say the word as hiss it” is fine in all respects. – Kris Apr 30 '13 at 14:27

The second verb should not be hissed, but hiss. However, you don’t use either the present or the past tense there. Rather, you use the bare infinitive, because that’s what do takes.

You can see that because you cannot use a tensed form of be when constructing the second part. That is, it would be

She’d didn’t so much have an inspiration as be an inspiration.


She’d didn’t so much have an inspiration as *was an inspiration.

It’s because the do auxiliary is outside the “so much X as Y construct. When the entire first verb fills the X slot, and that is a tensed verb, you can do the same with the Y slot:

It wasn’t so much that she had an inspiration as that she was one.

or with do in both pieces, because it is inside and not factored out:

It wasn’t so much that she did call him as that she didn’t call him.

But now factoring it out in front of so much as:

She didn’t so much as answer him as not answer him.

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    Does it follow from your analysis that She didn't so much say the word as hissed it is ungrammatical? – RainbowDash Apr 30 '13 at 15:11
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    I don't see anything wrong with it, and I found a similar sentence in COCA: ...then didn't so much eat as inhaled contents link – RainbowDash Apr 30 '13 at 15:20
  • @Rainbow: "Crowley (An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards)" can't be turned into *"Crowley (An Angel who had not so much Fallen as Saunter Vaguely Downwards)"; it has to be "Crowley (An Angel who had not so much Fallen as Sauntered Vaguely Downwards)". You can draw your own conclusions about whether "She didn't so much say the word as hissed it" is ungrammatical. Of course it's grammatical: parallel structure. It's just a style choice in this sentence. – user21497 May 1 '13 at 15:34
  • Yeah, the parallel construction argument wins. The 'inhaled contents' example is flawed, wherever it comes from. 'As' keeps the 'do' suspended. So if you wanted to break the implied parallelism, you should say "They didn't so much eat as they inhaled contents" otherwise the ear expects to make sense out of "didn't inhaled contents". – Jon Jay Obermark May 2 '14 at 17:37

Yes, it's a perfectly idiomatic English sentence. A bit colloquial, perhaps. But the formal sentence might be (you can never tell when you try to see beneath the surface structure to the underlying structure whence some linguists believe it came):

A: She didn't say the word in a normal voice but hissed it.


B: She didn't speak the word as much as she hissed it.

And then the sentence got mutated into a Wolverine-like idiom. The original sentence does have "hissed". Claiming that did governs both say and hiss is insupportable. Where's your evidence? Can you create an original sentence that shows how this is possible? The second verb in sentence B needs no "do-support".

  • What is the meaning of the sentence got mutated into a Wolverine-like idiom? I am familiar with "The X-Men" (I last read that series in 1999) and also the wolverine as mascot for state academia in Wisconsin... or maybe the badger? This isn't terribly important, but I'm a little curious. Thank you! – Ellie Kesselman May 1 '13 at 14:25
  • @Feral: It's an allusion to the The X-Men (which is why it's W and not w; saw it on TV just two days ago), not Wisconsin's mascot. Logan is a mutant. Idioms are linguistic mutants (linguistic Logans) that become standard fare (cliches) because they're constantly used. I probably shouldn't have made the allusion because it's too localized, just like Ezra Pound's allusions to items in books on the little bookshelf on his writing desk rather than to the larger world of American & European literature (in many languages) available to him: too localized. – user21497 May 1 '13 at 15:17

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