All it's cracked up to be - negative polarity idiom with obligatory pronoun


I unwisely used “Is compositionality all it’s cracked up to be?” as the title of a talk, and now, instead of writing the talk, I am worrying about the idiom. I assume that the syntax and compositional semantics of:

Kim is not all he is cracked up to be.

is equivalent to:

Kim is not all he is claimed to be.

does that seem right?

It seems that it is usually negative polarity and there is usually no subject for the passive, but I have found examples like:

it is all they crack it up to be

so it looks like one of these idioms that is variable for some speakers. I think the pronoun is more-or-less obligatory (for me):

all Kim is claimed to be is good, not brilliant.

?? all Kim is cracked up to be is good, not brilliant.

So, somewhat like tag questions?



I agree with those judgements. From a Google search, some speakers take this further:

“it doesn’t have the results it’s cracked up to have”

That’s perhaps unusual, but I find it perfectly understandable.


Interesting idiom! The similarity to tag questions is in the matching of the pronoun, I assume? The other thing that’s kind of in that space is the idioms with a necessarily identified possessive pronoun that Dan and Francis have worked on.


yes, the matching of the pronoun was what I was thinking of. I
can’t think of other examples of idioms with a obligatory
non-possessive pronoun at the moment, but I’m sure there are some.

The OED has an entry for an obs/dial sense of “crack” meaning
boast. It also has a couple of uses of crack up in the relevant
sense without the pronoun.


      *trans.* crack up          : to praise, eulogize (a

person or thing). So to
crack into (repute, etc.) Also (in pass. ), to be reputed (usually in
negative sentences). colloq.
1829 Kentuckian
28 May He is not the thing he is cracked up for.

1835 D. Crockett Life Van Buren
175 Great men…are not the things they are
cracked up for.

1836 Knickerbocker
8 51 New-Orleans is not…half so
bad a place as it is ‘cracked up to be’.

1844 Dickens * Martin
Chuzzlewit* xxxiii. 392 Our backs is
easy ris. We must be cracked-up, or they rises, and we
snarls…You’d better crack
us up, you had!

1857 T. Hughes * Tom Brown’s
School Days* i.
vi. 139 Then don’t object to my cracking up the
old school-house, Rugby.

1884 American
7 334 Mexico…is not what it has
been cracked up to be.

1892 Standard
1 Jan. 3/3 Unfortunate individuals who are for a
time ‘cracked’ into reputation by ill-advised patrons.

1939 War Illustr.
14 Oct. p. ii/2 An article from a Paris
correspondent cracking up the blue-lit nights of Paris.

1951 E. Bagnold * Loved &
Envied* 234 The emotions have been
found by then to be not all they are cracked up to be.

1969 ‘A. Gilbert’ * Missing from
Home* vii. 97 It’s not always all
it’s cracked up to be.

So, presumably individual speakers might just have it as a normal
verb (or have had, if that use has died out) and others have
various restrictions. Which I guess is true of a number of