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All about all

One of the quirkier features of the English syntax has to do with the simple word all. All is a quantity word, or quantifier in the terminology of grammarians and logicians. It indicates an entirety of something.

 When I taught grammar, someone invariably brought up examples like this:

All of the books were damaged in the flood.

What is the subject of were damaged in the flood? Some students opted for the word books, since books were the things that got wet and moldy. Others said the subject was all, reasoning that of the books is a prepositional phrase, so books cannot be both the object of the preposition and the subject of the sentence.

That reasoning makes sense but it raises another question, when we look at examples like:

All of the money was burned in the fire.

If all is the subject, why does the verb seem to agree with the object of the preposition? We say The books were damaged and The money was burned. Perhaps all draws on the noun in the of-phrase for its grammatical number. By itself, all can be singular or plural, so this is not too outlandish.

All is lost.

All are accounted for.

Alongside examples with all followed by an of-phrase,there are examples like these, where there is no preposition following all:

All the books were damaged in the flood.
All the money was burned in the fire.

In these examples, the books and the money are the subjects and all is a modifier. Linguists consider this use of all a “pre-determiner quantifier” because it can occur right before the determiner the. Dictionaries will simply tell you that all can serve as a pronoun (all of the money) or as an adjective (all the money). The presence or absence of the preposition of makes the difference.

Here’s a further wrinkle. The modifier all can shift to the right, yielding sentences like:

The books were all damaged in the flood.
The money was all burned in the fire.

Linguists call this phenomenon “Quantifier Float”: the quantifier can float out of the noun phrase to an adverb position.

When pronouns are involved, the preposition of is required: we say All of them were waiting rather than the unEnglish All they were waiting. BUT if all floats to the right, the sentence with they sounds fine: They were all waiting.

Floating is even possible with direct object pronouns: We saw all of them and We saw them all.

Quantifier Floating is not just an English phenomenon. Similar shiftiness is documented in French, Arabic, Hebrew, Thai, Japanese, and German, to name just a few languages. And there are some other quantifiers in English that have similar floatability, like both and each.

Both of the copies were checked out from the library.
The copies were both checked out from the library.
Each of the books was returned to the library.
The books were each returned to the library.

So that’s all folks.

Featured image by Stephanie LeBlanc via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Maurice Waite

    To suggest that “’all’ draws on the noun in the of-phrase for its grammatical number” doesn’t seem to me “outlandish”: the rule is both more fixed than the number of ‘none’ — “none is/are missing” — and more easily definable than that of ‘government’ — “the government is/are”.

    Dictionaries, like language blogs, choose their grammatical categories to suit their readership, so while a short, low-level, and/or learner’s dictionary may categorize ‘all’ as merely “adjective” or “noun” (or just “adjective” in one I have looked at), Oxford Dictionaries online has “predeterminer/determiner/pronoun”, “adverb”, and “noun”.

    “All they were waiting” is unEnglish, agreed, but only in modern English, since it is also archaic, as in the chorus from Handel’s Messiah “All we, like sheep, have gone astray”.

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