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I'll use an example statement that's currently being used in a radio commercial for American Family Insurance (paraphrased.)

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't.

Can someone please lex this to identify why but, I didn't is referring to the fact that the dream home was built and it was not build by myself; whereas and, I didn't would introduce ambiguity as to whether the dream home was built or not; or that it was built but not by myself.

To state my question another way: if I were to attempt to automate a lexical analysis of this statement -exactly as it has been provided- to conclude that the house was built with the help of others, what rules would I need to consider?

Apart from bare assertions that the sentence parses a different way, can anyone see any alternative interpretations?

[Edit]

I see the but as an adverbial conjunction and that's why my parsing is conflicting with that of others who are seeing it as a coordinating conjunction.

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself, only I didn't.

With this understanding, it is clear to see that this is the structure they are using. The question now is...is that the proper structure of an adverbial but? It feels natural to me, but by the responses below, others seem to disagree.

  • 3
    I deny your major: I don't think the but/and distinction necessarily implies what you say it does. – StoneyB May 21 '15 at 15:33
  • Usually a subsequent sentence would clarify "I built it with the help of a hundred people"... Can you finish the text of the commercial? – Catija May 21 '15 at 15:33
  • I agree, @StoneyB . Even "so I didn't" wouldn't imply that the house ended up never built... only that he didn't build it alone. – Catija May 21 '15 at 15:35
  • It sounds a little weird to me. I continue it as "...; but I didn't build it all alone." Does that make sense? – Mitch May 21 '15 at 15:44
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    You could take to mean that he did not tell himself that he couldn't build his dream home by himself. – Neil W May 21 '15 at 16:31
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There's actually a bit of a problem here - the sentence, as provided, without context or a follow-up, is indeed ambiguous.

I'll illustrate first:

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't.

This is how you resolved the sentence, with the meaning that the person built the home but had help - but this isn't the only way to interpret the sentence!

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't.

Here the speaker actually didn't build the house at all. What did they do? Well, they could have grown the house, as in living in some sort of organic structure. They could have found the house of their dreams - perhaps abandoned or lost in some hidden or rarely visited area. They could have also just bought the dream home, and this is actually just a clever add for a real estate agent. Or they could have inherited or been given it, and perhaps this is an ad for one of those lost-property services or a lawyer/estate planning service.

And actually, this isn't the only way to interpret the sentence either!

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't.

Here the speaker is referring to the fact that they themselves didn't build the dream home at all. This could even be combined with emphasis from the previous interpretation for another similar set of interpretations. Maybe their spouse did it, or their kid, or their grandparent - all are very possible introductions to a potentially interesting story.


So, what set of grammatical/syntactic rules are at work? In short: contextual re-interpretation, where ambiguity is resolved with additional information.

The purpose of the sentence is to provide a momentary pause, of confusion, not only because it violates a common template (They said...but I did, or They said...and so I didn't) but also because it is actually ambiguous. No rule leads us to only one interpretation, because it isn't the only valid one. It requires multiple re-readings to get a guess as to what the author might have meant, when no context is available.

Now, you could argue that proximity of "by myself" made the given interpretation more likely, and this is indeed a common enough sentence structure that it's a reasonable heuristic. You could also note that the specificity also made this part of the sentence stand out more, as we assume that all detail in a sentence is necessary for the meaning. For instance:

I told you I didn't want you driving at night; but you did it anyway.

Here we tend to assume that the problem was the "at night", and not the more general "driving" at all, due to both proximity to the objection and due to the specificity. If the speaker objected to driving generally, why did they specify at night? Well, this would also be somewhat ambiguous - because "at night" might have been intended as an intensifier!

Returning to the example sentence, let's look at it again:

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't.

Now, why would "by myself" have been included if it wasn't important to the sentence? If they had said instead:

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home; but, I didn't.

This is valid, but takes the natural emphasis away due to proximity and reduces our heuristic certainty. It could still be about going it alone, as they could follow with "my spouse and I built it together". But this seems like the less likely intent now.

However, as with my made-up example sentence, what if "by myself" was intended as an intensifier? The speaker was poor or physically disabled, so "they" said that not only could the speaker not build their own dream home, but they thought it was even more absurd that they'd be able to do it by themselves!

Ultimately, there is no syntactic rule that eliminates ambiguity from this sentence simply because there is still ambiguity. Multiple meaning and intentions are possible, and a reading agent can apply heuristic rules to find more or less statistically likely meanings - but no agent would be able to attain certainty.

  • Excellent. Thank you very much for your detailed response and identifying precisely where you feel ambiguity lies. I'm not completely convinced that ambiguity is not resolved by switching the conjunctions. I see "and" "but" and "so" (for example) importing strictly separate contexts for the statement "[insert], I didn't." (a la Tim Romano's answer) – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 17:15
  • Note that I didn't think about the answer to this question much before posting it. I thought it would be more interesting to discuss rather than sit and mull over. I contend that the structure of the conclusion with both "but" and "didn't" are relating directly to the truth value of the external statement made by "all." The switch of usage across the semicolon from "couldn't" to "didn't" imparts a specific meaning. The "but" states that "all" were wrong. The "didn't" applies to the "couldn't" and implies that the deed (building the dream home) was in fact, completed. – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 18:05
  • I contend that the usage of "by myself" as an intensifier here would require a conjunctive adverb such as especially not – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 20:07
  • You seem to be missing the most obvious interpretation: that the speaker never obtained his dream house at all. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 21 '15 at 22:11
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They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, (the thing is,) I didn't (try to do it, I had help).

He's saying they were wrong to assume I was trying to build it by myself.

EDIT:

The conjunction AND, unlike BUT, doesn't always provide contrast. Therefore, you might be right in saying that using and is ambiguous here. It could mean:

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; and (they were right), I didn't.

But I think that even here, the interpretation that the house wasn't built at all is far-fetched. If the speaker wanted to say that, they'd be more likely to say:

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; and (they were right), I couldn't.

  • I'm aware of what he was saying. I'm asking someone to produce an explanation of why the but leaves only "by myself" to be the subject of "I didn't" whereas and leaves an ambiguity. I can see that this is what "but" and "and" are doing in this statement, but I cannot formally state why it is that they are operating in this manner under this structure. – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 16:05
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    I agree with this answer, and I think that if @K.AlanBates wants to state the correct answer formally but can't, he needs to extend his formalism until he can. If a formal grammatical theory is not sufficient to describe correct analyses, then what good is it? – Greg Lee May 21 '15 at 16:27
  • @GregLee that is a very puzzling non-answer. If I'm saying "Hey, can someone please formally explain this because I can see the beginning and I can see the end but I'm fuzzy on how it gets there" how is your comment anything but non sequitur? In fact, as far as your comment is concerned, the site should just be shut down. Every question can be answered with "go figure that out for yourself." – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 16:40
  • @K.AlanBates, I agree that it's not much of an answer. A good answer would be to give a formal theory of conversation which incorporates the informal ideas of this answer. I'll have to get back to you on that. It's a bit of a project. – Greg Lee May 21 '15 at 16:46
  • Identifying that my interpretation was predicated on the understanding that the but was an adverbial conjunction would have sufficed. That's the "middle" that I wasn't quite getting (and it is clearly the structure they were using in the statement) The question now is is that structure syntactically valid for an adverbial but? If you perform the but->only substitution for an adverbial but, the statement reads clearly. But I'm not quite sure that there isn't something missing from the statement because modifying the I that follows doesn't seem quite proper to my ear. – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 21:36
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They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't.

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; but, I didn't build my dream home by myself.

They were wrongheaded to warn (or predict) that I would be unable to build the dream house on my own because it was never my intention to act alone.

The "but" denies "their" premise, the very basis for their warning or prediction. It does not deny the truth-content of the warning or prediction itself.

P.S. Consider:

They all warned me that I wouldn't make it to the wedding on time if I took the tunnel, so I didn't.

They all warned me that I wouldn't make it to the wedding on time if I took the tunnel; but, I didn't.

"So" makes perfectly logical sense. He did not take the tunnel because he had been warned of the traffic.

"But" does not make logical sense unless we understand "I didn't" to mean "I did not take the tunnel and never intended to take the tunnel." The "but" means "they had no need to warn me". It does not deny that the tunnel would have been a bad idea. It is the dramatic context of the conversation which is the referent of "but", not heavy traffic in the tunnel.

  • Thank you very much. That is a touch more nuanced than my initial interpretation, but I see us more in agreement than disagreement. (and I think I see the A Ha! that I was looking for) You are focusing the but on "they all warned;" however, I am seeing the meaning of "but, I didn't" to mean the same with or without "They all warned me that" ...I'll edit my initial question to add detail. – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 17:34
  • I just figured out how it is that we are right. The but is used as an adverbial conjunction. The meaning of the statement is identical to the rephrasing: They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; only, I didn't. – K. Alan Bates May 21 '15 at 20:48
  • @K. Alan Bates: succinct. – TRomano May 21 '15 at 20:54
  • Much virtue in only. – TRomano May 21 '15 at 21:09
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There is little difference between these two ellipses:

They all told me that I couldn't ( build my dream home by myself;) but I didn't (build my dream home by myself.)>

They all told me that I couldn't ( build my dream home by myself;) and I didn't (build my dream home by myself.)

It is a matter of Rhetoric: possibly Suggestio falsi 1 (Wickipedia), that you hear it as

They all told me that I couldn't ( build my dream home by myself;) but I didn't.

Or Psycholinguistics Compare Wikipedia.Garden_path_sentence

A garden path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end. Garden path sentences are used in psycholinguistics to illustrate the fact that when human beings read, they process language one word at a time. "Garden path" refers to the saying "to be led down the garden path", meaning "to be misled".2

0

I see this as holding a very strict context with one and only one possible valid interpretation.

A statement was made by "all" at some point in the past that has a truth value.

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself

If I merely believe that I could build a dream home by myself, I would have a weak disagreement with their assertion because both would be hypothetical. If I built a dream home by myself, I would have a strong conclusion to negate their assertion. If I attempted and failed to build a dream home by myself, I would have a strong conclusion to affirm their assertion.

I contend that the addition of "by myself" is not merely an intensifier that tries to add that "I can't build my dream home [even with help] and I especially can't build it by myself." That statement would be

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home, especially not by myself

An intensifier of this structure requires a conjunctive adverb. Without the conjunctive adverb, by myself is the major component of the premise.

Carrying through the semicolon, the context of all's statement is imported for the concluding one. To move past the conjunction for a moment, the didn't decorates that conjunction and applies to the couldn't from the premise made by all. Usage of a word that does not directly coincide with all's usage of couldn't necessarily imparts a tone of deflection. Usage of didn't denies that all's premise was ever under consideration.

To discuss alternatives first to address other potential, invalid, interpretations:

If assessment of the statement made by all was being evaluated by myself for consideration when building a dream home, the word could or couldn't would instead be used.

;and, I couldn't

would be used to state "they were right" but place the statement of the conclusion in an ambiguous temporal setting. It could potentially mean that the assessment made by all was agreed with, and no attempt to build a dream home by myself has been made. It could potentially mean that the assessment made by all was disagreed with, but a failed attempt to build a dream home by myself was made.

At any rate, and I couldn't would be used for these, not the structure as provided.

but, I could

would be used to state that I reject their notion that I could build it by myself but carry no truth value of whether the dream home was built. It would be perfectly valid to interpret this as but, I (know I) could to indicate subjective disagreement with all but no objective truth to the statement.

but, I couldn't

makes no logical sense within the context I am currently discussing. It only applies to a very novel interpretation of the statement that They all told me, but I couldn't tell myself.

and, I could

exists in the same vein as but, I couldn't It means They all told me, and I could tell myself although this is fairly weak.

and, I couldn't

is perfectly consistent with the assessment made by all. It very clearly means that I either tried to build my dream home by myself and failed or I agreed with their assessment and did not try to build my dream home by myself.


Usage of did implies something very different.

but, I did

means something very clear. They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself. But I did, in fact, build it by myself.

and, I did

is weird. I'm not certain that it is even valid given the logical structure. I see it only working with a very specific addition, consistent with the novel approach. They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home and, I [told myself that as well].

and, I didn't

is slightly ambiguous but has one strong and one weak meaning. The strong meaning is that they told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself. I tried to build my dream home by myself and I failed. The weak meaning is that they told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself and I did not tell that to myself.

but, I didn't

The but is used here as an adverbial conjunction. That's why the and versions of the statements seem clumsy and why but, I did seems very clear. The perceived discomfort with this version likely comes from the way the sentence was ended with an unfamiliar sounding phrase and the way the structure makes it sound somewhat as if the but is used as a simple conjunction.

They all told me that I couldn't build my dream home by myself; only I didn't.

  • ...cannot believe this categorized breakdown never got any love lol – K. Alan Bates Mar 29 '18 at 18:45

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