I'd like to know what is omitted between "but" and "nothing to . . ." in the following sentence. Is the second sentence correct?

Phil was making a living as a writer, but nothing to set the Thames on fire.

John invited many friends to Mary's party, but nothing special.


Possible answers:

  • There is no omission
  • The omission is "Phil was" [this is my solution to address Kate Bunting's point below]
  • The omission is "Phil was making"

Note that you can say "Phil was making nothing" but you cannot say "John inivited nothing", which I suspect is relevant for the second sentence's incorrectness (it is indeed incorrect for me and I suspect for most natives).

One reason why the example is somewhat problematic (and interesting) is that "to make a living" contains a slightly different "make" to "to make {quantity of money}". A more extreme example of this phenomenon would be "Phil had written the book which he just put on the table", where the first "book" is abstract, because Phil didn't actually write that printed copy, and the second is concrete.

  • 1
    I would say the omission was something like 'but his degree of success was'. ('Setting the Thames on fire' being an idiom for causing a sensation.) The second sentence doesn't really work. Dec 4 '20 at 13:18
  • 1
    I definitely see your point, and agree that there is implicit reference to Phil's lack of success. My answer is edited with a different solution
    – legatrix
    Dec 4 '20 at 13:22
  • 1
    Could the omitted part be restored as "Phil was making nothing of a living"?
    – Apollyon
    Dec 4 '20 at 13:22
  • I like what you're trying to do there, to bring the two "make" instances in harmony with each other. The problem is that "He is making nothing of a living" is not grammatical, at least for me. You can say "He's making no kind of living", but I mention that just out of interest.
    – legatrix
    Dec 4 '20 at 13:26
  • I see nothing to set the Thames on fire as referring to Phil's literary career rather than his income. He's successful enough to be able to live on what he earns by writing, but not a spectacular success. Dec 4 '20 at 13:29

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