The Grammarphobia Blog

All or nothing at all

Q: One of my pet peeves is the misuse of “all,” as in this example from a Washington Post column: “All of the Nats’ decisions won’t be correct.” Newspaper headline writers botch the use of this construction on a regular basis. Perhaps you could offer your readers some guidance in this area.

A: A fuller version of that passage from the Aug. 14, 2012, issue of the Washington Post reads: “All of the Nats’ decisions won’t be correct. But every call they make is now based on one standard—what they think is best for the Nats.”

Readers undoubtedly knew what the writer meant, but he committed a common usage mistake: He began a negative statement with “All.” A strictly literal reading of that sentence would leave the impression that none of the Nats’ decisions will be correct.

Negative statements that put “all” ahead of “not” can be ambiguous and even misleading. Pat addresses this problem in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

ALL . . . NOT/NOT ALL. Many sentences that are built around all . . . not face backward. Use not all instead: Not all Swedes are blond. To say, All Swedes are not blond, is to say that not a single Swede has golden hair.”

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage also discuss this problem.

When a sentence in conversation has “all” and “not,” M-W says, the “negative element is often postponed so that it follows the verb, instead of preceding all.”

The usage guide notes that such sentences go back at least as far as Shakespeare: “All that glisters is not gold” (The Merchant of Venice, 1597). The verb “glister” here is an archaic version of “glitter.” 

While these sentences present no problem in speech, says M-W, they can be ambiguous in writing. It cites this example from the Washington Post: “… all seventy-four hospitals did not report every month.”

The ambiguity is obvious. “Did none of the hospitals report?” says M-W. “Or did only some fail to report?”

The conclusion: Writers can avoid the confusion by simply placing the “not” before the “all.”

The M-W editors also note that the same problem crops up in negative sentences that put “every,” “everyone,” and “everything” in front of the negative element. They cite this example: “Everyone in San Francisco is not gay.”

Here, too, “Putting the not first will remove the ambiguity: ‘Not everyone in San Francisco is gay.’ This is a point worth keeping in mind when you write.”

By the way, we recently answered another question concerning “all”—whether it’s singular or plural when part of a noun phrase.

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