The Grammarphobia Blog

The other half of it

Q: You say on the blog that the idiomatic use of “the” in “the half of it” isn’t acceptable in formal English. However, I’ve found this usage in the King James version of the Bible, where the Queen of Sheba tells Solomon: “Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard.”

A: In our 2009 posting, we discussed many of the idiomatic uses of “the.” Among others, we talked about the expressions “the both of us” and “the half of it.”

We said those two constructions, while acceptable in speech and informal writing, wouldn’t be appropriate in formal written English in the US.

But perhaps we were a bit shortsighted about “the half of it.” After doing some additional research, we’ve decided to fill in the other half of the story. So here goes.

A search of the Early English Books Online database shows that respectable writers—and not just writers of Bibles—have been using phrases like “the half” and “the half of it” for centuries.

Examples in the ordinary sense (that is, half of something) are numerous: “the half of my kingdom,” “the half of their goods,” and so on.

But we also found many examples of negative or ironic constructions built around the phrases “the half of” and “by the half.”

These are early versions of such modern expressions as “you don’t know the half of it” and “he’s too clever by half.”

Here’s a sampling from the 16th and 17th centuries.

1571: “Excuse if I writ euill [evil], ye may gesse the halfe of it” (from George Buchanan’s condemnation of Mary Queen of Scots).

1587: “If men but knew, the halfe that he did write” (from a eulogy on the death of Sir Phillip Sidney).

1652: “O, quoth the Goat-Heard, I doe not yet know the half of the Adventures succeeded to Marcela‘s lovers” (from a translation of Don Quixote).

1655: “Is it not as well to have it [money] without blows?” “Not by the half” (dialogue from The Passionate Lovers, a tragicomedy by Lodowick Carlell).

1667: “few of the Laity know the half of them” (from an anti-papist treatise by Jeremy Taylor).

1677: “But truly I have not come to the half of that which I intended” (from a London minister, Thomas Wadsworth).

1685: “report of the Glory was true, but the half of it was not told” (from a theological treatise by George Keith).

1686: “it was too little by the halfe” (from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland).

1686: “the half of it is not mentioned” (from Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury).

1690: “I found that the half was not told you then of what is commonly known in this place” … “They have not done the half of what will be necessary to save them” (sentences from a theological work by Thomas Morer).

1696: “It were tedious to number the half of its omissions” (a comment on the Litany by a Presbyterian minister, Richard Baxter).

We could go on, but you get the idea.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s citations for “the half of it” (meaning “a significant or more important part of something” and generally used “in negative contexts”) don’t begin until the 20th century.

The OED’s first citation is from Hot Water (1932), a novel by P. G. Wodehouse.

Since we never pass up an opportunity to quote Wodehouse, here’s the relevant passage: “It makes me sick. And that’s not the half of it. … She told me I’ve got to be American Ambassador to France.”

Here’s another OED citation, from Minute for Murder (1947), by the pseudonymous Nicholas Blake (actually Cecil Day-Lewis): “ ‘We’ve not seen the half of it yet,’ said the Messenger darkly.”

The OED’s citations for “by half” (meaning “by a great deal; much, considerably, far”) go back much further—to before the year 1000.

The first quotation—which translates into Modern English as “sweeter by half”—is from the Metres of Boethius, an Old English adaptation from the Latin of the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius.

We’ll give a few more lines of the poem for context: “The comb of the honey cannot but seem / To each son of men sweeter by half, / If he have tasted before the honey / Aught that is bitter.”

A 1780 citation in the OED—“Oh, he’s too moral by half”—is from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy The School for Scandal.

And  later comes “too clever by half,” from George John Whyte-Melville’s novel The Interpreter (1858). The OED says the phrase means “trying too hard to be clever.”

And with that, we’ll stop. We don’t want to be too wordy by half.

Check out our books about the English language