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If You “Can’t Do Z, Let Alone Y,” Are You More or Less Able to Do Y?

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Stacy from Denver, Colorado, is accustomed to using the idiomatic expression let alone in a particular way, mentioning two possibilities within a range and placing the more extreme possibility at the end of the statement, as in I can’t even cook for myself, let alone cook Thanksgiving for ten people. Increasingly, though, she’s hearing people reverse such constructions, as in I can’t even cook Thanksgiving, let alone cook for myself. Stacy’s usage is correct, although let alone is a difficult phrase to parse, so the mistake is understandable. In this case, let alone is one of what linguists refer to as complementary alternation discourse constructions, a group that includes such phrases as to say nothing of, never mind, and much less. This is part of a complete episode.

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