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Please tell me which modifies which in the second sentence.

It is evident that there are two modifiers in the first sentence, "not" and "in the least". The words or phrases in round brackets are modifiers, and those in square brackets are the elements modified.

But things seem to get difficult in the second sentence. Is my grammatical analysis of the sentence correct?

1/ Gibbie was [(not) [disappointed]] (in the least).

2/ Gibbie was ((not) [in the least]) [disappointed].

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2 Answers 2

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It is helpful to remember with "not in the least" / "not in the slightest" that there is an implicit noun that is omitted. What we are really saying is something like "not in the least amount" or "not in the slightest degree", but the accepted form of the phrase omits that noun. So, I would argue, "the least" modifies the implicit noun (e.g. "amount"). The "not" modifies "disappointed" and the adverbial phrase "in the least [amount/degree/...]" doesn't really modify "not disappointed"; it qualifies it.

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It's is the same for 1 and 2. In both in the least modifies disappointed. If sets a low threshold for what is considered disappointing.

It may seem like not should be doing more, but it simply negates. However, if you remove it the sentence sounds weird.

This isn't because of a grammatical error. It's because "not in the least" is an idiom (one that doesn't care if the word order is like 1 or 2). Without the not it's no longer idiomatic. That's why "Gibbie was disappointed in the least" sounds so odd.

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  • Does this mean the sentences should be analyzed like below?
    – Xuan Huy
    May 21, 2016 at 5:08
  • Gibbie was (not) [[disappointed] (in the least)].
    – Xuan Huy
    May 21, 2016 at 5:11
  • Gibbie was ((not) [in the least]) [disappointed].
    – Xuan Huy
    May 21, 2016 at 5:12
  • Not only the phrase ''in the least" but also the negative "not" can be displaced without a change in meaning - like these sentences: <Neither> of us was in the least disappointed. I have <not> been disappointed in the least in my expectations.
    – Xuan Huy
    May 21, 2016 at 5:15
  • Well yes, but honestly, if you wanted to, you could also diagram them as Gibble was [(not) [disappointed]] (in the least) and Gibbie was (not in the least) [disappointed]. May 21, 2016 at 5:19

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