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It may help to supply the subject again, in the different possible configurations:

1. It is (the car of) one of his girlfriends.

2. It is one of his girlfriend's (cars). (Cf. "It is one (of the cars) of his girlfriend.")

3. It is one of his girlfriends' (cars). (Cf. "It is one (of the cars) of his girlfriends.")

In my opinion, ex. 3 is the most ambiguous. First, I would argue that dyske's #3 is mistaken in that it understands "one" twice--in other words, he is going for the meaning "It is one of the cars of one of his girlfriends," a meaning which I don't think is strictly permitted by the phrase given. Now, the most sensible way of understanding my ex. 3 is as follow: The car belongs to the group of "his girlfriends." This meaning subsumes both the possibility that the car is owned jointly by his multiple girlfriends (whether all of them or a selected group) and indeed the possibility suggested by dyske's #3 above, i.e., that one of his multiple girlfriends owns the car, but the speaker is for some reason unwilling to specify which one and so ascribes the car more generally to the group. Likewise, any combination of girlfriends owning cars is possible: the girlfriends may each own one car, but some or all may own several each, and some or all may own none--so long as there is own car to ascribe to the whole group. Finally, I would caution against using the plural possessor (girlfriends') to signify many cars owned by one girlfriend--the transferal of plural number from the elided subject (here "cars") to its genitive modifier (here "girlfriend's") is a not uncommon mistake make on the basis of specious convenience.

4. A fourth possibility, though even harder to bear than the polygamous exx. 1 and 3, is that the speaker is simply saying "It is one of his girlfriends," i.e., that the CAR ITSELF is the girlfriend of the man in question (which doesn't altogether ignore the question "Whose?" since it does contain a note of the concept of possession). This would obviously involve a metaphorical use of "girlfriend."

Thanks for the stimulating post.

Daniel May 8, 2009, 12:24am

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I think the question of whether the phrase "all but" denotes "nearly" (i.e. the generally supposed meaning) or "not at all" (i.e. the opposite of what is generally meant) rests on a semantic distinction between progression toward an object and resistance to or movement away from an object. In the first sense, "subject + all but + predicate" can suggest that the subject is on the point of performing the action contained in the predicate, as manifest either in his previous actions that tend toward the denoted action or by a more inferential notion that he desires to perform the action. In the second sense, one may understand "subject + all but + predicate" as indicating that the subject preferred to do everything else except the action denoted by the predicate. As has been demonstrated above, this latter, subjective understanding of the phrase "all but" is hardly attested in the phrase's usage.

A second point in reference to the "Anonymous" comment above: I agree that your example and the preceding examples are similar but not equivalent as far as the phrase "all but" is concerned. The subtle difference, I believe, is that in your example "All but one" is a cohesive subject, such that "all but" serves as an epithet or modifier to the noun "one," whereas in the other examples all but is used PREDICATIVELY with the verbal segment of the sentence. The distinction "adjectival" versus "adverbial" explains many and sundry grammatical issues. Latin and Greek grammarians (see A.E. Woodcock, H.W. Smyth, et al.) are especially fond of applying this concept.

Daniel May 7, 2009, 11:37pm

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