From a poem maggie and milly and molly and may written by E.E. Cummings

May came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone.

What do as small as a world and as large as alone mean? Are they phrases?

Why is a world small and alone large?

closed as off-topic by StoneyB, Martha, Jim, Tyler James Young, Hellion Dec 18 '13 at 18:12

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it's LitCrit. But I think it's fair to say that cummings is trying to make you ask those questions of yourself. – StoneyB Dec 17 '13 at 16:14
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    while the question certainly inspires some off-topic-ish answers, it's of vital importance to language learners! if OP is reading e.e. cummings to help learn English, certainly he needs help figuring out which phrases are English and which are... e.e. cummings being e.e. cummings. – hunter Dec 17 '13 at 16:15
  • What is 'LitCrit", literature critics? – Tim Dec 17 '13 at 16:16
  • Literary Criticism. The racket I used to be in. – StoneyB Dec 17 '13 at 16:29
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    @StoneyB That explains a lot. :-) – Jay Dec 17 '13 at 17:30

e.e. cummings plays with the language quite a bit. His writing is beautiful but would be a frustrating source to try to learn English from!

"As small as a world" makes sense grammatically (it means: the same size as a world, which is small). It doesn't make sense semantically (since, as you say, "why is a world small?")

"as large as alone" is not grammatically correct, prescriptively or descriptively. however, the word "alone" sounds like "a lone" (where "lone" as far as I know is not a word) so that phonetically "as small as a world and as large as alone" at first sounds like a completely normal sentence before you stop and think about the semantics of it. I imagine this was the effect he was going for.

  • Of course "lone" is a word! Have you never heard of "The Lone Ranger"?! – Jay Dec 17 '13 at 17:23
  • :-) you're right. should have said "not a noun." – hunter Dec 17 '13 at 17:24
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    +1, but I'd say that descriptively it's "non-standard" rather than "grammatically incorrect". – snailcar Dec 17 '13 at 23:03
  • I agree with @snail. Despite its unusual construct, I had no problem deciphering "as large as alone." Because of its unusual construct, I found the words beautifully inspirational. Imagine if an editor had forced mr. cummings change the words to "as large as the feeling of being lonely and isolated." Blech, ick. – J.R. Dec 18 '13 at 10:43
  • interesting. I both disagree and agree. My definition of "descriptively correct" is "something a native English speaker would spontaneously utter" and I maintain that native English speakers don't put "alone" here naturally. If you mean "something a native English speaker can spontaneously understand" then we agree. I definitely agree that it's beautiful and that it should not be edited! Perhaps what is needed is a four way contrast between "prescriptively correct/descriptively correct/exotic but poetically interesting play with words / gibberish." – hunter Dec 18 '13 at 12:09

Someone trying to learn English should be very cautious about what he makes of poetry and song lyrics. These often do not follow regular grammar rules and in general may use the language in unusual ways.

"As small as a world" is surely meant to be a surprising statement. We normally think of the world as very large. Note that he does not outright assert that the world is small -- he does not say, "Contrary to popular belief, the world is really rather small." Instead, he makes the statement indirectly in a comparison, as if the smallness of the world was something that everyone took for granted.

"As large as alone" is not grammatically correct because "alone" is an adverb and sometimes-adjective, while the phrase calls for a noun. But again, the writer is trying to indirectly say that the state of being alone is something very large ... whatever he means by that.

  • I found the phrase as large as alone to be wonderously beautiful. Such a shame to call it "not grammatically correct," no matter what the dictionary and grammar books may say. – J.R. Dec 18 '13 at 10:38
  • @J.R. I dislike grammar books as much as anyone -- they teach people ridiculous "rules" like "don't end a sentence with a preposition" or that "me and lee" cannot be the subject of a sentence. These "rules" don't accurately describe english. However, that's not what Jay's answer is doing. e.e. cummings is playing with the language here. You do a disservice to a language learner by pretending he will be easily understood if he copies this use of the language. If you really feel that I'm wrong, you should post as a separate answer to the question that the speaker should use this phrase. – hunter Dec 18 '13 at 13:42
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    Personally I love grammar books. But regardless, a phrase like "as large as alone" may be beautiful in the context of a poem, but I certainly would not encourage anyone to use it in general conversation. "I can't carry this by myself. It's as large as alone." No, no one will have any idea what you're trying to say. – Jay Dec 18 '13 at 16:31

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