From Steinbeck's Cannery Row,

Doc was almost supernaturally successful with a series of lady visitors. He didn’t half try.

Does it mean that Doc did not do anything to win hearts of these ladies?


I have to disagree with FumbleFingers. In the Cannery Row example it means Doc didn't seem to put any effort into it at all, but walked away with remarkable success. Think of it as

He didn't [even so much as] half try.

I see FF has edited his post to add something about this before the deadline, so I'll just emphasize that this is the meaning, and it's not a statement that Doc was trying hard.

  • Well, you might be right on that particular instance, but we're not doing Lit. Crit. here. And I'd be pretty sure the historical trend is towards the "opposite" sense. – FumbleFingers Jan 14 '13 at 21:57
  • Well, are we not to pay attention to specific examples given by the OP? If I say "Did you do your homework?" do you answer "Many people do homework in the evening"? – Robusto Jan 14 '13 at 22:02
  • I don't think the quoted excerpt itself is enough to definitively establish which of two diametrically opposed senses is intended. But in common parlance today I don't half think it's more likely to be used to amplify rather than to diminish whatever's being "half done". – FumbleFingers Jan 14 '13 at 22:09
  • I agree that in that context (having read the previous sentences) it does mean that Doc didn't try very hard, but usually as FF rightly says it means the opposite. – spiceyokooko Jan 14 '13 at 23:44

To not half [do something] is a common idiom meaning to do it completely/wholeheartedly.

It's more often used in "positive" senses - so, for example, "I don't half like [whatever]" gets over 20,000 hits in Google Books, whereas "I don't half hate" gets only 4.

Having said that, particularly in older texts, the construction can have more or less the opposite meaning (effectively, "I don't half like = I don't very much like"). But in Steinbeck's usage, I think we can safely say Doc puts a lot of effort into ensuring success with the ladies.

EDIT: I don't really want to be forced into having an opinion on which of the two possible meanings applies in this specific context. I'd expect it to be obvious to anyone who'd been reading the entire text up to that point - but that doesn't include me, and ELU isn't a Lit. Crit site.

By way of showing that in general the idiomatic meaning I gave is currently the more common, consider these 15 instances of "I won't half give" - which in every single case clearly means I will definitely give.

  • The statistics on “didn’t half try” differ sharply from of those for “I won’t half give”; about 90% of the instances I looked at mean "didn't try hard", and a few mean "tried hard" rather than "only halfway trying". – James Waldby - jwpat7 Jan 14 '13 at 23:29
  • @jwpat7: Good point. I just happened to look at like followed by give, where it was obvious that many of the first (and none of the second) were the "negating" sense. And practically all instances of doesn't half look seem to be the "emphatic" sense. It's an intriguing question overall (does the specific verb matter? is usage changing? for example) but interpreting any one specific instance seems pretty irrelevant to me in an ELU context. – FumbleFingers Jan 14 '13 at 23:48

The problem is with the negative. If I say I didn't walk, it leaves open the possibility that I ran, rode a bike, drove a bike, flew, crawled etc.

If you didn't half do something then you may have three-quarters done it, fully done it, not done it at all, and so on.

An important factor is the speaker. A cockney saying "I didn't 'alf like it!" would, without a shadow of a doubt mean, "I liked it a lot."

We have to go with the context. As a Brit I don't know what Steinbeck would have meant by it. It could mean either.

  • The two Brits answering this question seem to have difficulty understanding this idiom. As an American, I think it's quite clear @Robusto's answer is correct. – Peter Shor Jul 30 '15 at 18:48
  • @PeterShor - Were not misunderstanding. We're understanding what it means to us. It's fine if it means something different to you. We live and learn. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 30 '15 at 18:55
  • It seems to mean the opposite in British English and American English. Quite interesting. – Peter Shor Jul 30 '15 at 19:06
  • It means that he exerted very little effort. Not at all ambiguous in American English. – Hot Licks Jul 30 '15 at 22:08

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