Q: I’m editing a magazine piece and I’m stuck on whether to change “is” to “are” in these two sentences: “All we have is our bodies. All we own is ourselves.” I feel as if it should be “are,” but it sounds awkward to have “our” follow “are.” I feel sound is more important than grammar here. Is a singular verb absolutely wrong?
A: The short answer is that the verb “be” in both those sentences should be singular: “All we have is our bodies. All we own is ourselves.”
In this kind of sentence, “all” is a collective pronoun that means “the only thing” or “everything”. And when it’s used with a form of the verb “be,” the verb is always singular—“is,” not “are.”
This is true even if the verb is followed by a plural complement like “bodies.” Or like “teeth,” as in “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.”
We’re not talking about the adjective “all,” which can be used in either a singular or a plural construction (“all boys are” … “all food is”). And we’re not talking about another use of “all”—the pronoun that can be either singular or plural (“all of the boys are” … “all the food is”).
Here we’re talking about the pronoun “all” in a different construction: it’s not followed by “of” or “the,” and it stands for a totality of something.
Theodore M. Bernstein wrote about this use of “all” in The Careful Writer (1965):
“All is an adjective that sometimes becomes a pronoun, as in, ‘All I know is what I read in the newspapers,’ or as in the line from the one-time popular song, ‘All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.’ In both these instances the word is singular.”
As he explains, “When all is equivalent to the only thing or everything, it takes a singular verb.”
Other authorities agree. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says this use of “all” as “a collective abstraction” requires a singular verb.
Garner’s gives this sentence from a newspaper as an example: “All she wants is people to be touched by the gifts she believes God has given her.”
The usage guide adds: “Writers sometimes err, especially when a collective all has a plural complement in the predicate—e.g., ‘All she needs are [read is] the open-house listings in the Sunday Real Estate section.”
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) puts it this way: “When all is the subject of the verb to be followed by a plural complement, the linking verb is expressed in the singular.”
Fowler’s gives these examples: “All I saw was fields” and “In some sense, all we have is the scores.”
We briefly touched on the subject of “all is” versus “all are” in 2006, but back then we were discussing a different use of “all”—as part of a noun phrase for something concrete, as in “all the milk” or “all the cookies.”
As we mentioned above, such “all” phrases can be either singular or plural, as in “All the milk is fresh but all the cookies are stale.” In that example, “all” is part of two noun phrases, one clearly singular (“all the milk”) and one clearly plural (“all the cookies”).
So when “all” is part of a noun phrase for something concrete, there’s no problem determining whether the phrase as a whole is singular or plural.
Even when “all” isn’t part of a phrase, it often implies either a singular noun or a plural one, as in “all [of the dinner] was delightful” or “all [of the children] are well.”
But again, if “all” stands for “everything” or “the only thing,” then it’s singular, as in “All he ever wants is meat and potatoes.” It might help to remember the familiar expression “All is well.”
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