According to several websites, the lyrics of the song "Papa was a Rollin' Stone" by The Temptations (and, later, George Michael and Phil Collins) include the following line:

"And when he died, all he left us was alone"

To a non-native English speaker like me, both the following sentences would sound perfectly all right:

  • "all he left us was one dollar"
  • "he left us alone"

However, "all he left us was alone" looks hard to parse, and I am wondering whether this is simply a word play, a poetic license, or a slangy expression. So, is this expression grammatical at all? It's funny to see that many Google searches include "all he left us was a lone" and "all he left us was a loan" (which, I admit, was my first, meaningless understanding when I heard the song for the first time, many years ago...).

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    It is a play on words. When he died, he did not leave us any money - or anything else, but because he was gone, we were alone. – Weather Vane Jan 10 '18 at 20:06
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    So yes, it's ungrammatical but playful language that native speakers can understand without difficulty. If the point were stated directly (He left us alone, and he did not leave us anything) there would be the superficial appearance of a contradiction: if he left you alone, then why do you say that he did not leave you anything? Of course this difficulty is imaginary, so the resolution ("All he left us was alone") is a sort of joke. – Chaim Jan 10 '18 at 20:11
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    As opposed to “All he left us was a loan.” – tchrist Jan 10 '18 at 20:49
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    Welcome to EL&U. This is an example of syllepsis, frequently used for humorous effect. There are many famous examples in Dickens (e.g. I am leaving for greener pastures and ten days) and Pope (stain her honour, or her new brocade) among others. – choster Jan 10 '18 at 23:05

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