Does the sentence 'There's only so much I can do' mean "I've done everything I could" or "There's still something I could do but my power is limited and it may not be enough"? In other words, is that "so much" already done or not?

  • In many cases, a native speaker would say There was only so much I could do if he'd already done it. But since it could be seen as a "generic" assertion concerning the speaker's limited powers of action, it would also be fine to use Present Tense regardless of whether there was any specific contextually-relevant need for action (which the speaker isn't sure he can / could adequately deal with). Mar 8 '20 at 14:42
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Could you specifically address my last question? Mar 8 '20 at 15:03
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    I thought I already did. Native speakers aren't always particularly careful about verb tenses in contexts like yours (where pragmatically, if someone has limited ability now, that was also true in the past, and will continue to be true in future). And we often use Present Tense where strictly speaking we're not talking about "current, ongoing" actions. In short, saying There's only so much I can do doesn't necessarily imply anything at all about whether I have done, am doing, or will do as much as I can/could. Mar 8 '20 at 15:54
  • FFRMonica is right. "There is only so much I can do" might equally well refer to a past, present, future, or hypothetical situation. The context of the conversation would make clear what is meant. Mar 8 '20 at 16:14

There is only so much I can do

does not formally address the past at all. In context, it may be possible to infer that nothing, something, or everything was done in the past, but the words above on their own are silent on the issue.

Now that I have two children to care for, there is only so much I can do

certainly implies that I used to be able to do more. In a formal sense, it only speaks to a difference in past and present capacity and is silent on action. However, it usually would be intended to imply that I previously used to do something without necessarily implying that I used to do everything.


There was only so much I could have done

does not imply anything about the present or future. Again, it does not formally say anything about action; it formally speaks only to past capacity. Usually, however, it would be intended to imply that something, but definitely not everything, was done in the past.

They are vague usages that formally speak only to capacity, but usually imply partial action.

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