I’m asking about the position of the adverb “hardly” in sentences. If the second sentence doesn’t have the same meaning as the first, what’s the difference?

  1. I had hardly any money coming into the house.
  2. I hardly had any money coming into the house.

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  • In this example I think the meaning is the same. – Max Williams Jul 4 '16 at 16:24
  • @Max: Not necessarily. #2 could validly be used in contexts where I had no money whatsoever coming in. Just as I hardly think so! means I definitely don't think so! (not I only think that a little bit). – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '16 at 16:30
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers I'm not sure about that. I think that if you had no money coming in you would say "I had no money coming in", not "I hardly had any money coming in". At least, that would be the common perception, I think. This is just my opinion, which is why it's in a comment not an answer. – Max Williams Jul 4 '16 at 16:32
  • @Max: You surprise me. Assuming you accept my hardly think so example (and, for example, It's hardly as if I had any money coming in), at what point do you suddenly decide hardly can't be used to express total negation? – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '16 at 16:35
  • I don't think there's a difference in meaning, but (1) is better because "hardly any" refers to "money". Oh, and you would say "into the house". – Kate Bunting Jul 4 '16 at 16:47

"hardly any" is a negative counterpart to "only some", and the latter is analyzed by McCawley in The Syntactic Phenomena of English as an adverb used to compare or contrast its focus, here "some". The placement of "only", and I suppose this "hardly" as well, is governed by the rule that the adverb must be a syntactic modifier of some constituent which contains its focus, but which constituent is modified, when there are several choices, makes no difference to the sense.

So, just as "I had only some money coming in" means the same as "I only had some money coming in", because in the latter example "only" is attached to the V-bar which contains it's focus "some", we'd expect your two examples to mean the same. In my opinion, they do.

To verify this analysis, we can compare placement of the adverb after and before an indirect object verb (as McCawley does with "only"):

  • I gave Mary only some money.
    *I gave only Mary some money.
    I only gave Mary some money.

    I gave Mary hardly any money.
    *I gave hardly Mary any money.
    I hardly gave Mary any money.

As we see, the pattern is the same.

  • I agree that hardly any indicates negation, and that only can also be a negative polarity item. However, the reason that only Mary and hardly Mary are not equivalent is that only Mary makes only an adjective equivalent to Mary alone, whereas it is difficult to fit hardly into a similar adjectival position. “It was hardly Mary who took the candy” might be a counterexample supporting hardly as an adjective, but it can also be read as equivalent certainly not which could be argued to negate the was before it. I don’t know; it’s all a bit fuzzy in my mind — but fascinating. – tchrist Jul 4 '16 at 17:34
  • @tchrist, you misunderstand the intent of the examples. Following McCawley, I mark the focus of "only" or "hardly" using boldface, corresponding to emphasis in the pronunciation. In the ungrammatical example "I gave only Mary some money", the bolded "some" is the focus, not "Mary". Whether there is some other construction possible with "Mary" as focus of "only" is not relevant to the example. – Greg Lee Jul 4 '16 at 17:47
  • Oh I thought you were using the asterisk on the second example to indicate it was not grammatical. – tchrist Jul 4 '16 at 18:04
  • @tchrist, Yes, I was. I marked my 2nd and 5th examples as ungrammatical, using asterisks. I just now in my comment referred to my 2nd example as "the ungrammatical example". Though I think I've been clear, I guess the underlying difficulty is the fact the linguists are nearly always talking about pronunciations, not conventional spelling/printing. – Greg Lee Jul 4 '16 at 18:45

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