From DEEP MOAT GRANGE:

Not once did she manifest the least emotion or contrition, still less fear.

I think "still less fear" is an adverbial modifier, but what does "still less fear" modify?

Besides, I noticed there is a "less" in that phrase, and so it seems there should be a comparison in that sentence. But I can't find any comparison in that sentence.

Could anyone give me some hints?

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In constructions like Not X, still less Y, the still less element is effectively an intensifier of negation, equivalent to Not X, and definitely not Y.

So in OP's context, the "literal" meaning would really be something like...

She didn't manifest emotion or contrition even once, and she manifested fear even less often than that.


Obviously in OP's exact context that literal interpretation could be seen as rather odd, since not once means never, and it's a bit nonsensical to talk about something happening less often than never.

In practice therefore, it often makes more sense to understand the intensified negation as applying more directly to Y - some "negating" statement has been made asserting that X didn't happen, was unlikely, or isn't a suitable word for the context, and that statement would be even more true if we substituted Y instead of X.

A common alternative that could usually be used with exactly the same meaning is...

Not once did she manifest the least emotion or contrition, let alone fear

...where it would make more sense to interpret the "intensified negation" as implying something like the preceding assertion would be even more true if we substituted fear instead of emotion or contrition.

I believe the comparison is between the amount of emotion or contrition and the amount of fear

still less is used to introduce something even less likely than something already mentioned. It shortens what would otherwise be quite a long sentence.

"Not once did she manifest the least emotion or contrition and the amount of fear that was manifest was even less."

  • I am not an expert on the English language and have no formal qualifications in English. I offer my advice as a native British English speaker. I believe the advice of an untrained English speaker can sometimes be beneficial – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 11:57
  • Sorry, I don't think this interpretation is correct. It's not the amount of contrition or fear that's being compared, because it says she showed no contrition, so she could hardly show less fear. Rather, the comparison is of the showing. This is a subtle difference, but you could use this construction in things that don't take any degree at all, like "I don't own any car, still less a 1967 Austin-Healey." – stangdon Mar 24 '17 at 12:11
  • I can only give advice as a native speaker rather than an expert on linguistics but I think it is emphasising the extreme lack of any fear. Even though there was no contrition there was even less fear. Mathematically it does not make sense but the phrase is metaphorical rather than literal . For example, if the opposite were true one might say their level of fear was 110% to say they were very frightened. – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 12:22
  • Yes, It would be perfectly reasonable to say 'I don't own any car, still less a 1967 Austin-Healey'. You would be saying I don't own any car let alone a car as revered as a 1967 Austin Healey. It would be understood to mean you would love to have a car but even if you could it wouldn't be able to be a 1967 Austin Healey. – RedPython Mar 24 '17 at 12:40
  • I don't think it's really a case of still less fear implying a lesser amount of fear. It's more a matter of saying that whatever was previously denied (that she ever showed emotion/contrition) would be even more true if it had been denied that she ever showed fear (it's a device for conveying an even more emphatic denial). – FumbleFingers Mar 24 '17 at 14:16

Let's take the example sentence from the Cambridge dictionary that @stangdon has cited:

At the age of 14 I had never even been on a train, much less an aircraft.

We can substitute "still" for "much" there.

She had never seen a single snowflake, still less a blizzard.

The phrase "let alone" is synonymous with "still less" or "much less":

He had never read a short story, let alone a Russian novel.

This pattern relies on a gradient of some kind, comparing things at opposite ends of the gradient. It denies or negates the extreme thing more forcefully by denying the unextreme thing in relation to it:

He had never been to the next county over, still less to a country on the opposite side of the planet.

When we apply the structure of this pattern to the original sentence, we see that the author might be straining the pattern:

Not once did she manifest the least emotion or contrition, still less fear.

for it creates a gradient of emotion

contrition.................fear

but the nature of the gradient is not very clear. Is fear less likely than contrition? Is fear more extreme than contrition? Do these human responses even belong on the same gradient?

She showed not the slightest regret, still less heartfelt contrition.

It is an illogical sentence.

Not once did she manifest X,

means "she manifested X less than once, thus zero times"; "she did not manifest X at all".

Then

still less fear.

means she manifested fear less than she demonstrated X: she manifested fear fewer than zero times. ("Not once" is an idiom in English that usually means "zero times"; although "three times" is "not once" in a literal sense, that interpretation doesn't apply here. It does apply in other situations, for example: "Not once, but twice did he insult me!")

Also, since fear is an emotion, the statement "not once did she manifest emotion" already implies that she manifested no fear. Had she manifested fear one or more times, it would not be correct to say that "not once did she manifest the least contrition or emotion".

The woman manifested no emotion: she manifested fear exactly as much as she manifested contrition: to a nonexistent extent, zero times.

Though illogical, this could be a deliberately humorous or ironic sentence. (A line from a slapstick character in a comedy play or whatever).

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