God only knows…

Ever notice how people use the expression, usually when claiming and attributing widespread ignorance, "God only knows…"?  The upshot of it is to say: the issue is evidentially impenetrable, so only an omniscient entity could know the answer.  But the expression doesn't say that.  It says that God only knows, not that only God knows.  If God only knows, that means that knowing is the only thing he's doing. Moreover, it doesn't say that we (or anyone else) don't know… which is what the expression was supposed to imply.  Now, you can imply that by quantifying over God instead of over knowledge.   So why do people say it that way, if it doesn't mean what they say?

Maybe it's because in saying "God only knows,"  one is actually compressing a dramatic pause, so: "God, only, knows," which would read the quantifier ranging over "God," not "knows".   Any thoughts?

13 thoughts on “God only knows…”

  1. I think "only" is not invariably a way of restricting the action of the subject: as in all that God does is knowing. It can also function as a modal (though somewhat archaic) when I say "I see only too clear that you're wrong" (it does not mean "all I do is see too clear"). The expression could be of this sort. 

  2. An interesting reading of how quantifiers work as modals.  And it certainly puts the right emphasis on 'knows', which is better.  But does this modal feature also communicate that that speaker  is (and many others are) ignorant of the fact?  It seems to me that the only way to capture that implication is to read 'only' as a quantifier that limits all knowers to god.  Am I being obtuse about this?

  3. Here's their (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/God+knows) take on it:
    God only knows .  Only God knows, that is, neither I nor anyone else knows, as in God knows where I've stored those photos , or God only knows how many people will join the march . [Second half of 1500s]
    I think this is just an expression, and like most expressions it's not meant to be taken literally. Piece of cake 🙂

  4. Hi BN, you're right that it's only an expression, and so will have a few informalities to it, but it's nevertheless an error… and one so easily correctable in switching the order of the words.  That's what's bugging me — it's an expression that literally doesn't say what we take it to mean.   I have a feeling that it may be, as you note with it being an expression, a matter of felicity of phrasing.  Once we know what the expression means, the order of the words doesn't matter that much.  So even if the expression literally is about God and what he's limited to doing, it nevertheless use of it attributes ignorance to everybody not God.

  5. Normal


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    There is yet another option to the quantifier-vs-modal assessment: God only and only God means basically the same thing except that the placement of 'only' is a nuance of emphasis.  God and God only.  In this case, it is modal (emphasis) and quantifier.  With our street-level knowledge of English grammar, we often don’t remember where to place an adverb, placing it in adjectival positions even when we mean it adverbially.
    Another thought: expressions handed down over many, many years eventually lose their referent, either because they are truncations or distillations of larger expressions or contexts that have been forgotten, or because language has changed (or the consciousness of language usage has changed) enough to throw off modern readers. Anachronistic (or exochronistic) comprehension, as what happens so often in disagreements over Biblical passages when reading the King James version.
    My sense is that reading “error” into the expression may itself be an error.  First is the assumption of what you say it means: “…attributing widespread ignorance.” In fact, oft times the ignorance is not projected on a circle any “wid[er] spread” than the individual using the expression, resulting in meaning more like “I have no idea.”  The next possible error is concluding that “only knows” signifies “knowing is the only thing he's doing.”  Does it seem like natural English to you to say “Scott only knows” without there being a context that fills in the elliptical “knows [what]”?  To resolve a grammatical convention (such as leaving out of a sentence that which the context makes explicit) to “error” is, itself, erroneous because of other relevant linguistic factors your analysis lacks.
    Here’s another example: “Sigo, do you know what a modal auxiliary is?”  “Yes, Scott, I do.”  “I do” what?  By your logic, outside of English linguistic convention, “I do” means I’m in a state of simply doing.  Or could I be assenting to marriage?  Or ‘do’ could be purely modal and simply be emphasizing the tense of whatever the contextual, antecedent verb is.
    I found a similar attempt at linguistic analysis in a newspaper down here in Puerto Vallarta once about the “de-” prefix. I replied to the “de-” misconceptions as well as followed up with a quickie on the “-ed” ending that you might enjoy. (I hope that the embedded URLs aren’t stripped out by the blog software.)

  6. Dang … sorry about the stupid microsoft code.  I wrote my message in email first and pasted it in here.  If I could edit it, I would. 

  7. Hi Sigo, thanks for the comment.  Especially compelling is your suggestion that the expression is elliptical for "God and God only…" 
    That said, I have two things to take issue with.  The first is that I can concede that there are suppressed anaphors with the expression, so one is saying that only god knows x.  E.g., where my car keys are, where Jimmy Hoffa's body is, and so on.  I noted it in the post by saying that the issue is evidentially impenetrable.  I did not say all issues, or general ignorance.  The widespread attribution of ignorance is not ignorance of all things, but ignorance of this or that thing for everybody but God.   There's nothing to "my logic" that commits me to any of the inattentive interpretations you attribute to me.
    Your second point that these expressions, once they become canonical, lose their initial referents, is right.  You (and BN above) are right about that, and I've conceded that.  In fact, my question in the post is an acknowledgment of that fact: this expression means this, but its surface grammar means that.  Why do we tolerate this mis-match, when it can be corrected with a simple change of word order? 

  8. We can only judge based on the data before us combined with the data we have already; and the combination may not be enough to interpolate whether you've been committed or not committed.  My analysis attempted to parse what you were saying, not what you weren't saying. 
    Back to the topic.
    You did say the issue is evidently impenetrable.  I admit to missing that with respect to the anaphor.
    But how do you explain "knowing is the only thing he's doing"?  I think that, in order to address the question of your post, we need to have correctly exposed & addressed the underlying assumptions, right?

  9. Hi Sigo.  Thanks for the clarification.  Right.  So take grammatically similar statements:
    (A) Jerry only paints.
    (B) On Saturdays,Betty only naps.
    Now, for sure, neither (A) nor (B) say that the speaker herself doesn't paint or nap.  That's my first problem — in order for saying (A) or (B) to communicate that, we'd need to change the order and so: Only Jerry… and Only Betty…
    But your question is about the exclusivity that only brings to the table.  FOr sure that if I utter (A), I'm not saying Jerry doesn't also breathe. Or with (B), I'm not saying that Betty doesn't digest food or wear underwear.  So there is a contextual relevance to the exclusion — we're saying that Jerry, say, doesn't do carpentry or maybe he doesn't do sculpture.  ANd Betty, we're saying that she doesn't work, or she doesn't garden, or she doesn't watch TV. 
    So what is the contextually-defined class of exclusion with "God only knows where my keys are"?  My question is what is, if we take this literally, God not doing?  One (problem of evil inspired) interpretation is that God, if he only knows, then he's not helping me find the keys.  He's only knowing, he's not telling.

  10. The grammar of the expression is archaic (16th c., I think BN's link above tells us), but to conclude from this that it is a 'mistake' is like arguing that French is mistaken because it routinely puts its adjectives after its nouns. We are dealing with a fossilized bit of language that preserves conventions that are no longer widespread, but that does not make it erroneous.

  11. Nothing you have said or in BN's link has shown that it's not an error, only that it's old.  Now, if the archaism explains that the 'only' is a quantifier that modifies 'god' and not 'knows', then that's an answer.  But there's nothing to any of the story that shows it. Only that it's old.  And in this case, and old error. So your suggestion (and your ridiculous analogy between this and French) is beside the point.
    Again, I'm open to the interpretation that runs that there should be a pause between 'god' and 'only' that changes the range of quantification to 'god', but so far, I haven't seen any evidence that the modern form of expression is simply a case of people suppressing it the pause.  Archaism may help with that, but not without more evidence.

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