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It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . .



 
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It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . . #1 (permalink) Thu Oct 22, 2009 20:58 pm   It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . .
 

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Hi,

I was wondering what the proverb "it was all (s)he could do (not) to. . ." means.

I read it in a lot of novels, and I always thought that it means something like "(s)he had no choice but to do what (s)he was doing, or (s)he would have . . .)

For example:

It was all she could do not to scream.
or
It was all she could do to keep from laughing.

But then I noticed that there is no action preceding such a sentence, so there was nothing she was doing to keep herself from screaming (or laughing).

To cut my prattle short: I thought I knew what it means, but at second glance, I don't.

Claudia
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It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . . #2 (permalink) Thu Oct 22, 2009 21:39 pm   It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . .
 

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Hi Claudia,

"it was all (s)he could do (not) to. . ."

This means as you say - she found it extremely difficult not to scream/she had to control herself so that she didn't scream. It is often used in conversation when you are relating an incident to someone about how you wanted to laugh out loud but because of the situation you stifled your laughter as in:

There was deadly silence in the hall when the speaker walked up on to the stage. Unfortunately he tripped and fell flat on his face. I know it must have been painful for the poor man but in all honesty it was all I could do not to laugh.

Alan
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It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . . #3 (permalink) Fri Oct 23, 2009 0:13 am   It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . .
 

I can understand why you find this expression a bit odd, but Alan explained it clearly. My hypothesis as to its origin is this, although I don't actually know:

A: She tried not to look at him and do other things to hide her merriment, but she couldn't even do that much; not to laugh was all she could do.
B: Really?
A: Yes, it was all she could do: not to laugh.

Not to laugh would then be an apposition to "it", not the purpose of "do". In modern English you would perhaps rather say "it (not laugh / no laughing) was all she could do", though even that would sound awkward.
That said, all of this is a mere hypothesis.

There is another strange expression reminiscent of this one: she couldn't help laughing / she couldn't help but laugh. To help laughing should ordinarily mean: to assist in or improve the laughing - but that is the opposite of what it actually means.
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It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . . #4 (permalink) Fri Oct 23, 2009 17:23 pm   It was all (s)he could do (not) to. . .
 

Thank you for your help. I got it now :)

Claudia
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Joined: 10 Oct 2009
Posts: 1715
Location: Franconia, Germany, Illinois, USA

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