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“all but” - I hate that expression!

Can’t help it but I really despise the expression “all but”. How did a phrase that suggests the opposite of what it says ever come into currency?

“Such actions were all but unheard of then” “Later, they were all but wiped out in a British attack” “They were all but exterminated by the Jedi”

PS: For some discoveries in word coignage read Neal Stephenson’s trilogy The Baroque Cycle. A mere 3000 pages.

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I don't think this post is appropriate to this forum.

Jun-Dai October 16, 2004, 4:43pm

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It doesn't suggest the opposite of what it says... it suggests and means "almost completely". So, "all but wiped out" means "everything except wiped out" eg. annihilated, destroyed, one guy left alive, etc.

camryn October 17, 2004, 4:15am

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There are more direct ways to express that meaning. Personally, I trip over a sentence containing that expression every time. Also, I've only seen this in writing but don't remember hearing it spoken (I record lectures for radio on a frequent basis). To me that indicates speakers of English are not too fond of it.

As for Jun-Dai's comment: "not appropriate" - huh??

martin October 17, 2004, 3:32pm

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Well, for one thing, you didn't phrase it in the form of a question. (kidding) I'm the last one here to criticize someone just pointing out a pet peeve and asking the community what they think! :)

As far as the construction mentioned... it's "all but" extinct in the speech of the people I deal with daily. The most common substitute seems to be the EVEN WORSE DON'T GET ME STARTED "practically." As in, "Dammit, look where you're driving--you practically killed that pedestrian."

Nothing practical about it, of course. LOL

speedwell2 October 18, 2004, 8:02am

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This is really a forum about understanding the grey areas, inconsistencies, variations in usage, and problems of the English language. There are many other fora for complaining about such things, or for relating personal English-language pet peeves, and it would be a shame to see this otherwise useful forum to devolve into that.

An ideal example of an appropriate post is one that asks people to explain some grammatical or lexical feature of the English language, or to explain the reasoning behind some such grammatical principle or rule. Most of the posts here do that, but yours is not a request for some sort of explanation; it is simply a complaint.

Jun-Dai October 18, 2004, 4:35pm

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Having complained about your complaint, I'd like to mention that I do hear "all but" from time to time (and I even use it myself), so its usage may vary from region to region or social circle to social circle. It's a pretty sensible expression (a little on the colorful side, but that's true for any idiomatic expression, in English or in any other language), as it essentially means what it states, as Camryn pointed out. What's an alternative? "Almost" can always be used in its place, but then it loses some of it's intensity. "Almost completely" or "almost entirely" captures some of that intensity (at the expense of an increased number of syllables and letters), but there's a tiny shift of focus (IMO) from the portion that is excluded. That is to say, "all but wiped out" puts more emphasis on the people that have not been wiped out than "almost entirely wiped out" does.

There's a cousin phrase to "all but" that isn't quite as common: "everything except." An example might be "during their argument, John did everything except punch him." Here the meaning is that John was antagonistic/defensive, but stopped short of punching him.

So I'm not entirely clear whether the particular phrase "all but," which is not an exceptional case in the English language by any means, is a pet peeve of yours, or whether, underneath it all, you are really waging a war with idiomatic expressions in general.

Jun-Dai October 18, 2004, 4:47pm

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I agree with Martin. It does suggest the opposite.

marcelo May 30, 2005, 11:31pm

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Tjeck out websters, it states that all but = nearly

Den Olen October 2, 2006, 5:26pm

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Interesting that none of your examples use quantity. Compare: "All but one were eliminated." It is a similar (but not identical) grammatical construct.

Speedwell, "practically" is certainly overused to the point of being a buzzword, but it really does make sense if you think of "practically" as meaning good enough for practical purposes but not necessarily proper or correct. I imagine the commonly used "virtually" would be even more annnoying. And how about "for all intents and purposes"? (while we're on the subject of pet peeves, the misstatement: "for all intensive purposes" is one of mine)

Gee, Jun-Dai, what exactly is the problem? To me, the nature of Martin's post fits your definition of "understanding the grey areas, inconsistencies, variations in usage, and problems of the English language" EXACTLY!! What is this, Jepoardy? Is Alex Trebec going to say, "Oooh, sorry, you didn't phrase it in question form"? If I may quote the late Ann Landers, "quitcherbeefin!"

Anonymous October 3, 2006, 12:44pm

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Well, it may have started off as a complaint, but this thread DID contain useful information.

Some people, like this Jun-Dai guy are so caught up in the rituals and the rules, they forget the point. Let the moderators nick-pick about thread discussions. If you don't like it, STFU and cry to your momma.

My Personal favorite english oddity:
Using "these" and "they" in the same sentance. I don't know why. It seems wrong, but it's not!

"Are these they?"
"Yes, these are they."
"Here are they!"

ashley October 18, 2006, 2:53am

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I think the question of whether the phrase "all but" denotes "nearly" (i.e. the generally supposed meaning) or "not at all" (i.e. the opposite of what is generally meant) rests on a semantic distinction between progression toward an object and resistance to or movement away from an object. In the first sense, "subject + all but + predicate" can suggest that the subject is on the point of performing the action contained in the predicate, as manifest either in his previous actions that tend toward the denoted action or by a more inferential notion that he desires to perform the action. In the second sense, one may understand "subject + all but + predicate" as indicating that the subject preferred to do everything else except the action denoted by the predicate. As has been demonstrated above, this latter, subjective understanding of the phrase "all but" is hardly attested in the phrase's usage.

A second point in reference to the "Anonymous" comment above: I agree that your example and the preceding examples are similar but not equivalent as far as the phrase "all but" is concerned. The subtle difference, I believe, is that in your example "All but one" is a cohesive subject, such that "all but" serves as an epithet or modifier to the noun "one," whereas in the other examples all but is used PREDICATIVELY with the verbal segment of the sentence. The distinction "adjectival" versus "adverbial" explains many and sundry grammatical issues. Latin and Greek grammarians (see A.E. Woodcock, H.W. Smyth, et al.) are especially fond of applying this concept.

daniel.c.dooley May 7, 2009, 11:37pm

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I'm fascinated by the idea that came to me that this person was expressing a peeve about a completely legitimate English construction and implying that it should not ever be there.

Admittedly, we all feel that way about some NEW construction, but new constructions are admittedly in the gray area.

I'm obviously having some sort of hormonally imbalanced day, but what it translated into was "Let's get rid of these complicated English forms that I can't understand." Yeah, that'll fix it.

scyllacat May 8, 2009, 3:49pm

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For what it's worth, I always took 'all but' to mean the opposite of what people who use the term intend to say. So when someone says "they were all but wiped out", usually the context around the statement will clarify that the user intended to say "they were completely wiped out". Which is not what I heard them say when thet said "the were all but wiped out".
In short, I agree with Martin and conclude that this is an expression that is misunderstood by most who use it, and consequently they misuse it.

cees February 17, 2010, 5:34am

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I dont know why ppl created so much fuss. I fully agree to/with what Martin said.

This phrase {"all but"} has a function opposite to what is stated. May be some of these linguist guys have got their heads stuck up somewhere. Just try to look at it from a 'natural' perspective.

And ofcourse, this is not a campaign to abolish this term from the English language, just a discussion about "pain in the english" which is what the name of this site is, why dont those guys get it?

amit_alayswins August 17, 2010, 6:58pm

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Heh--I remember I was reading that poem "All But Blind" in 8th grade--I just couldn't understand it.

"All but," to me at least, could mean "Everything except..." or "Everything, but at the same time..."

For example,

"That dude's all but broke."= "That dude's everything, except he's broke" and "That dude's awesome, but he's broke."

Not the best example, but that's my trouble with it.

Joey April 25, 2011, 2:50pm

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I am purplexed as to why the MS Word grammar check insists on my using "is" after "all but one" rather than "are." It seems to me that the verb relates to the plural. I would not say, "all is interested." I would say, "all are interested." So why would it be correct to say, "all but one is interested"? Why wouldn't it be "all but one are interested"? Is the Microsoft grammar check mistaken, or am I?

Eric May 2, 2011, 8:13am

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Re "ALL BUT" -- according to the Oxford English Dictionary, under "all":

b. all but: everything short of. Hence (adverbially) Almost, very nearly, well nigh, (also with hyphen) used adj., almost complete or entire; in ellipt. use: almost; also as n.

I use it... I am working on a book and used it in a paragraph. When I read it later, I wondered--what does that mean, exactly? I had used it instinctively based on other usages in I'd read and heard. When I looked it up, I initially found this thread--very interesting in terms of questions about usage... But when in doubt, turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for precision rather than conjecture or opinion.... You can still dislike it and/or refuse to use it... and I do think many people are unsure about its meanings... hell, I wasn't even sure and started to second guess myself (as it turns out, my usage was correct). I do not, however, think that you can convincingly argue that it means the opposite of something... if anything, it seems to perform an emphasis.

Shannon August 18, 2011, 2:20pm

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I think "cees" pinned the tail on the donkey. I have found that many people who use "all but" actually mean "completely" or "totally," and do not understand the literal meaning of the term in question. Then others turn around and use it incorrectly themselves, causing the vexation that started this thread in the first place. I have never liked using "all but" for all the confusion it brings.

Geronimo March 1, 2012, 12:57am

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The clearest way of putting the problem (in my mind) in this: The literal meaning of 'all but' is 'everything except,' but that is not what is meant. Consider:
My boss' constant nagging made the job all but impossible.
'Everything except' suggests that the nagging made the job everything except impossible - but that is clearly not what is meant. 'Almost' or 'virtually' seems to fit better, and this is why 'all but' is a poor expression - its literal meaning is somewhat at odds with what is meant. We should 'eschew' it - don't you think?

AndresChicago June 15, 2012, 5:09am

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I was searching for the origin of this phrase, because I agree with many of you that it is a poor construction since it can have two opposite meanings.

For the phrase "All but finished"

The intended meaning is "Almost finished"

However, it can also be translated as "Not finished" (every case except finished)

As we know, "Almost finished" and "Not finished" have nearly opposing definitions, therefore proving the construction "all but..." to be terrible! :)

Rich August 9, 2012, 11:33am

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To: Rich:
As we know, "Almost finished" and "Not finished" have nearly opposing definitions, therefore proving the construction "all but..." to be terrible!
That statement is not a sane one.
"Almost finished" and "not finished" really do mean the same thing.

If some process or some piece of work is missing even one iota from being finished, then it is NOT finished. It could still be "almost finished".

If a surgeon operated on you and he/she did everything except for putting in one stitch, then our conclusion would have to be NOT finished (or unfinished).

You could suffer dearly from that missing stitch. You could bleed a lot.
The reasonable verdict would be "Guilty of medical malpractice."

D. A. Wood August 9, 2012, 11:11pm

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'But' to mean 'except' has a long history - 'There but for the grace of God, go I' - 'I had no choice but to sign the contract'. - so, as others have said, the literal meaning of 'all but' is pretty close to 'everything except' - 'He all but killed me' - 'He did everything except kill me'. In fact the Free dictionary gives two meanings - everything (or everybody) except and almost.

Ironically Jun-Dai seems to have got closest to the mark. It's an idiom, it doesn't need to be analysed to death. And like scyllacat I suspect, I've never experienced the slightest misunderstanding when either using or hearing it. What's more, it was good enough for Shakespeare, apparently.

And Rich, if 'I'm all but finished', technically speaking yes it's true that I haven't (quite) finished yet (that's the only way I can see how 'all but' can mean 'not'). But the implied meaning is very different from 'I'm not finished' - Consider you're on a long boring walk - 'We're all but there' would be quite positive, while 'We're not there' would be rather negative. I don't really think you've proved anything to be terrible.:)

Warsaw Will August 10, 2012, 7:47pm

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I was just watching a documentary, the narrator explained how a person "purchased all but 8 cents of his salary in war bonds".
This is a prime example why this expression is problematic.
Did the person use all his money to buy bonds with the exception of 8 cents which he used for something else?
Or did the person buy ALMOST 8 cents worth of bonds every month?
I understand that it is the latter. But as a translator, I tend to use the first grammatical construct because it is a very common one in Spanish.
So now the question is, if I want to say that the person spent all his money on bonds EXCEPT 8 cents (which he kept), how do I say this?
I cannot use the words "all but" because they would be interpreted to be used as an idiomatic expression and not in their literal meaning.
I figure I could say: The person spent all his money on bonds except for 8 cents.
This format takes away the emphasis of the original sentence, which focuses on the large amount expended on bonds and shifts the emphasis onto the 8 cents NOT used for the purchase of the bonds. So the reader is not getting the intended purpose, the emotional emphasis, of the writer. This idiomatic expression stops me from using a very common form in Spanish and forces me to give wordy explanations or unfit alternatives. Lost in the translation, you might say.

Jose V. February 9, 2013, 3:29pm

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Hola Jose. Are you sure you didn't mishear? I don't really see how can you purchase part of your salary? Surely he spent all but 8 cents of his salary on war bonds, or he invested all but 8 cents of his salary in war bonds. But either way it's clear - this is surely a metaphorical 8 cents - in other words he used almost all his salary - everything except 8 cents - to buy bonds.

When it means almost, as in "he all but killed me" it is really like saying "everything except". There is no real ambiguity between the two uses. I don't see how it could possibly mean "almost 8 cents" here - I think buying 8 cents worth of bonds might be a bit tricky.

And there's a grammatical point:

1. = almost
The party was all but over when we arrived.
It was all but impossible to read his writing.
He all but knocked me senseless.
We'd all but arrived there when the accident happened.

In these examples, "all but" always seems to be followed by an adjective, adverb or verb, never by a noun, pronoun or number.

2 = everything except
All but one of the plates were damaged.
They've gone to the pub. All but me.
He spent all but eight cents.
All/Everything but the kitchen sink

But in the "everything except" meaning, it is always followed by a noun, pronoun or number, as in your example. It could also be replaced by "bar" - "All bar one".

Here are a few examples from the New York Times:

= everything except ( NB followed nouns or numbers)

I have spent all but the last two months of my life in Manhattan
McDonald's, Citigroup, and all but a handful of other American companies
Note that all but one of the writers I mention is a woman
... also ordered all but emergency vehicles off the state's highways

= almost (NB followed by adverb, adjective or verb)

whose name is all but synonymous with Wall Street
It was a term Hollywood all but coined for her
Congress seems all but paralyzed when it comes to raising revenue
HOCKEY; It's All but Over for Gretzky

And a strange one - "All but Over, Except for the Shouting", presumably a play on the more usual - "It's all over bar the shouting"

Here are a couple of "except" examples from Shakespeare:

Exeunt all but Brutus and Caesar - Julius Caesar - Act 1 Scene 2
Those that are married already - all but one shall live - Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1

Sorry, that doesn't really solve your translation problem though. Incidentally, just to get more confusing, "but" also used to mean "only":

A simple sentence hath but one subject - English Grammar - Lindley Murray 1795
In English, there are but two articles, "a" and "the" - A Short Introduction to Grammar - Robert Lowth 1762

It survives in a few idioms and song titles:

The mouse that has but one hole is quickly taken.
He has but one claim to fame
I Have But One Heart - song

Warsaw Will February 9, 2013, 5:50pm

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Something strange happened in that first sentence - it should of course have read - I don't really see how you can purchase .... Unfortunately there are a couple of other typos as well.

Warsaw Will February 9, 2013, 5:56pm

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Apparently even newspapers (well, the Sun) get confused with this one. The Sun writes:

With all but a monumental collapse now standing between Manchester United and a record 20th league title, all eyes turn to who will win the fight between the also rans for second place.

What they mean of course, is "With nothing but a monumental collapse ..."

I imagine the confusion arose because of the old meaning that but sometimes had of "only".

Warsaw Will February 24, 2013, 4:41pm

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Oh, Warsaw Will, I agree with you emphatically.
"With all but a monumental collapse now standing between...." is truly horrid English.
Actually, it isn't even English, but rather it is gibberish.

By the way, "The Sun writes" is also nonsense.Whatever the "Sun" did, it was sometime in the past, so either the past tense or the present perfect tense is required. So, "the Sun wrote". Actually, it is probably more correct to state "the Sun printed". However, the "Sun" is a corporation, and corporations are incapable of doing anything like these things. So, in truth, "the employees of the Sun wrote" or "the employees of the Sun have been writing".

I have aslo seen weird statements like "John Jones writes" or "John Jones says", when in reality, John Jones has been dead for several years, hence he does not say or write anything at all anymore. Likewise, Winston Churchill says or writes nothing at all anymore.

So many people have lost sight or the fact that the present tense means RIGHT NOW. Here are some example: The Houses of Parliament stand in London.
A large statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in Washington, D.C.
The Moon orbits the Earth once every 29 days. It is doing so right now.

In contrast, the American, British, and Canadian Armies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. This was definitely an event in the past.

D. A. Wood February 24, 2013, 6:25pm

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@D.A.W. - Well, it no doubt makes a first that we are in agreement, but without wishing to spoil the moment, I can't understand your objection to "the Sun writes". This is quite standard English and is sometimes referred to as the historic present:

"In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present (also called dramatic present or narrative present) refers to the employment of the present tense when narrating past events. Besides its use in writing about history, especially in historical chronicles (listing a series of events), it is used in fiction, for 'hot news' (as in headlines), and in everyday conversation (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 129–131). In conversation, it is particularly common with 'verbs of communication' such as tell, write, and say" Wikipedia

On your second point, to take your logic to its extreme, we would need to say something like "In an editorial yesterday, the editorial writers of the Times stated that bla bla bla..." That would be nonsense; the norm would be "In an editorial yesterday, the Times stated that bla bla bla.."

"So many people have lost sight or the fact that the present tense means RIGHT NOW." - including me, I presume!

Apart from "it is doing so right now", which is in Present Continuous (or Progressive), none of your examples, the rest of which are in Present Simple, are in fact about right now. The moon has been orbiting the Earth for millions of year and hopefully will continue to do so for millions more. As far as I remember the Houses of Parliament were there last time I was in London, and I imagine they will be next time I'm there. But what's happening in Parliament right now, I don't know.

I'm afraid you're confusing your tenses (or at least aspects): Present Simple is used for things that are always or generally true or are regularly repeated, especially with expressions of frequency like "every 29 days". It's Present Continuous (or Progressive) that's used for right now. Right now I'm writing this comment, not right now I write this comment.

In any case we don't use present tenses to talk exclusively about the the present; they're also used to talk about the future:

Tomorrow afternoon, I'm meeting my cousin off the train. (arrangement)
The train gets in at 3pm. (timetabled or scheduled event)

So if you're going to give me a lecture on tense use, it might be a good idea to have a look at a grammar book first.

Warsaw Will February 25, 2013, 11:53am

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I don't need a grammar book in English because my mother was a professional teacher of American English for several decades. I learned from her.

You are arguing concerning that twisted mess called "British English".

No, not "In an editorial yesterday, the editorial writers of the Times stated that bla bla bla" but rather, "In an editorial yesterday, the editors of the Times stated bla bla bla"
The people who write editorials are called "editors" - but once again we are getting into the superiority of North American English (which includes Candian English, don't forget.)

In American English, we say that a short buiding "sits" somewhere, but a tall building strands somewhere. "Mr. Jones's house sits along Maple Street", but "The Empire State Building stands in New York City." "The White House sits along Pennsylvania Avenue", but "The Capitol Building stands on Capitol Hill."

So, do not get confused about the Houses of Parliament (buildings) sitting along the Thames, and the House of Commons (a group of people) sitting for a meeting.
Concerning the monuments of Washington, D.C., the Washington Monument stands, the statue of Abraham Lincoln sits (in a chair), but the statue of Thomas Jefferson stands (on its feet). All of these are in the present tense, indicating RIGHT NOW, and there is no need to use the present progressive form.

Also, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial sit along the Potomac River, but it is not possible for the Washington Monument to do anything but stand. When this monument was completed, it was the world's tallest structure, surpassing the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and it remained the world's tallest structure until it was surpassed by a cathedral in Germany. Then, a few years later, that was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. Some say that the Washington Monument is still the world's tallest stone structure because it does not have a metal framework at all. On the other hand, is the tallest one the cathedral in Germany? Or does that one have some metal framework? It is hard to find out because there are so many erroneous sources out there. Some of them do not mention the Washington Monument or the cathedral at all.

"Right now I write this comment," is perfectly fine language. It is not necessary to use the present progressive form, though that is the more common way.
I have read of a noteworthy play (maybe one of Shakespeare's) in which a character says, "I die." It was not necessary for him to say "I am dying," because "I die" means RIGHT NOW.

When I say, "The Moon orbits the Earth," and "The Earth orbits the Sun," these mean RIGHT NOW. It does not matter that they have done so for billions of years, and that they will do so for billions of years into the future, because my sentences tell of the situation right now. As for the Moon, even if the weather is bad over the entire continent, and nobody there can see the Moon in its orbit, we can measure its presense can its movement by radar.We know what it is doing.

On the other hand, I have read a book of "Noteworthy Last Words". In it, there is the story of a physician who was seriously ill. From time to time, he was taking his own pulse - until one time when he said "Stopped," and that was the end of the his life. He was using the word "stopped" as an adjective, but that means "right now".

Also, I have read that during the latter part of the 1800s, a criminal in England was taken to the gallows to be hanged. He was standing on the trap door with the noose around his neck. Then he decided to make a final declaration, but that was just as the trap sprung. HIs last words were supposedly, "I am J----" as the noose tightened around his neck. People have speculated that he intended to say, "I am Jack the Ripper." Is this true? Note that the verb "am" is in the present tense, and it means RIGHT NOW. He did not intend to say, "I was Jack the Ripper."

D. A. Wood February 25, 2013, 12:54pm

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Unfortunately I can't claim to have had a mother who was a teacher, but I can claim to be one myself. Putting aside your insults to British English, which of course are just a lot of prejudiced nonsense, I'll try and answer your points one by one:

1. Editorials - as far as I'm aware these are rarely written by the editor in person, but by a group of editorial staff, especially if the editorial is not the first leader. But anyway, apart from your good self, most of us wouldn't mention the person or people. That was my point. Here area a few example I got by googling "in an editorial the times said":

In a recent Sunday editorial, the New York Times said Johnson & Johnson “has a lot of explaining to do” (Rottenstein Law Group)

China Should Speak Out About Hacker Attacks, Global Times Says (Bloomberg)

In a series of reported stories and a strong unsigned editorial, The New York Times has vividly illustrated the faults with the Federal Trade Commission’s disappointing ruling in its antitrust investigation of Google. (

2. A building sits or stands somewhere - I don't know why you think this is specifically American; we do the same. But that wasn't the problem. When you said that the Houses of Parliament stand in London, that's about general time, not necessarily about right now. And when you did use the words "right now" to talk about the moon, you rightly went into Present progressive, "It is doing so now", because "It does so right now" would have been ungrammatical. I have to tell you that "Right now I write this comment," would be marked wrong in any English Certificate exam for foreign learners. Shakespeare and other writers are allowed poetic licence.

As for your famous last words bit, when talking about existence, the verb "to be" is a stative verb and not used in the progressive form, so you are right there, but this is not true with most verbs. To be honest, your verbs "sit" and "stand" in your meaning were also stative. I said they were bad examples not because the grammar wasn't correct, but because "right now" is not the main use of Present simple; it can only work with stative verbs. And stative verbs, by their very nature, describe states: things which don't change much day-to-day.

For example, your sentence "A large statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in Washington, D.C", sounds the sort of thing you might read in a guide book. Yes, it is there right now, but it was also there yesterday and it will be there tomorrow. This is about a fairly permanent state of affairs. And the criminal was still alive (just), so of course he would say "I am" - this is an existential "I am".

Anyway, this is what one of the biggest ESL sites (American, not British!) has to say about the use of present tenses. It no doubt explains it better than I am doing:

I notice you've said nothing about historical present or present tenses being used for future reference, so perhaps you now accept them.

Warsaw Will February 26, 2013, 11:02am

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Warsaw Will: I have a hard time understanding that the statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in Washington, D.C., because it sits in a chair, just as I sit in a chair as I write this. What is so hard about this? I could recommend that you look up photographs of the interior of the Lincoln Memorial. You can find these on the Internet.

Notice that "you look" is in the present tense. Look away for ten seconds, and then you look again. Any of those moments is "right now", and you can repeat the process as many times as you chose to do so.

Also, I actually wrote "the Houses of Parliament sit along the Thames in London", and not "stand", as you misread and miscopied. "Sit" was the contrast that I ws trying to make, compared with the Empire State Building, which "stands" in New York City. Stop in the name of the Queen! You made a salient mistake. Why?

The statue of Thomas Jefferson "stands" in the Jefferson Memorial because the figure of Jefferson stands on its feet in an upright position. That was the contrast that I was making: Lincoln sits but Jefferson stands.

I didn't say anything about the "historical present" because that is rarely seen or heard of in the United States in American or Canadian products.
One big problem that we face here concerns documentaries on TV that were made in the U.K. or in Ireland. These have narrated paragraphs in which the tenses of the verbs flip back and forth between the past tense and the present tense in a random order. In other words, they do so "willy nilly" or "ad litem".

There is absolutely no concern in the consistency of the use of the tenses.

Furthermore, there are odd statements like "the team decided". A team does not have a brain, so a team cannot make any decisions whatsover.
Here in North America, we say, "the leader of the team decided".

Then, if those decisions are terribly unpopular, you Britons could say, "the team threw the leader overboard to the sharks".
In America, we do not have too much of a history of mutinies.
We do not have stories of Captain Bligh or Henry Hudson.

D. A. Wood February 26, 2013, 12:08pm

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To: Warsaw Will:
"It does so right now" would have been ungrammatical.
Quite to the contrary: "It does so right now" is perfectly good English, at least in North America, where over 300,000,000 English speakers live.
Does the Moon orbit the Earth? "It does so right now," or "It still does so right now."

Q: Will your bank give change for a $100 bill?
A: It does so right now. Let's go!

Q: Does Vanguard 1 orbit the Earth?
A: It still does so right now, and it has done so ever since 1958.


D. A. Wood February 26, 2013, 12:31pm

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To Warsaw Will:
You do not understand how newspapers operate in the large cities of the United States and Canada.
Here, a large newspaper does not have just one Editor, but rather it has many editors. Some of the higher-ranking of these have more explanatory titles such as these:
Associate Editor
Assistant Editor
Managing Editor (one with many business responsibilities)
Science Editor
Sports Editor

Naturally, the newspaper's editorials that go on the editorial page are the responsibility of the Editorial Page Editor. Letters to the Editor go there, too, and actually the "editorial page" can be two or more pages long.
Furthermore, in the largest cities, the Editorial Page Editor has assistant editors who work for him or her.
When submitting a letter to the editor, the proper greetings are "Dear Editor", "Dear Mr. Editor", or "Dear Madame Editor". "To Whom It May Concern" also works.

To be an editor for a large newspaper here is rather like being a vice-president of a large corporation, which might have 25 or 30 vice-presidents.

Hence, "The editor of the New York Times wrote" or "The editors of the New York Times wrote" are both correct. In the first case, it is understood that the New York Time has many editors.


D. A. Wood February 26, 2013, 12:51pm

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@D.AW. - I don't see why are you are still going on about a building sitting or standing somewhere; I have absolutely no problem with that. I just find using the example of something that has been there for a hundred year or so, and will continue to do so in the future a strange example of "right now". But let's leave that one as we're obviously never going to agree.

Let's talk about the team instead. This is simply a different way of thinking between Americans and the British. You prefer formal agreement and we prefer notional agreement. We often see a team, or any other group, such as the government or a company or newspaper, as being a group of people rather than a single entity, so we say that the government are introducing a new law, or the company treat their employees well etc.

I know Americans feel uncomfortable with this, but I feel equally uncomfortable when I hear a family referred to as it, or that the family is coming for Christmas. For you it's an entity, for me it's a group of live people. Neither of us are more correct than the other; it's just a different way of seeing things. Just like American humour is different from British humour. Because we look at things slightly differently.

But now you've opened Pandora's box, I'd be fascinated to know what other aspects of British English lead you to call it "that twisted mess". I'm sure it'd be great fun. I do so enjoy your lectures.

Warsaw Will February 27, 2013, 11:20am

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@Warsaw Will
Warsaw Will says:
@D.A.W. - I don't see why are you are still going on about a building sitting or standing somewhere; I have absolutely no problem with that.

I do not like people misquoting me and lying about what I said or wrote!
You have never apoligized about that, either.

You are obviously a habitual liar and a Philistine, too.
Am I making myself clear? You lied about what I wrote.
Now, you want to sweep it under the rug ??
Shame on you. Go eat manure.


D. A. Wood February 27, 2013, 1:06pm

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Dear Philistine:

I have had BRITISH people tell me that the phrase "the government are", such as is used by cheap tabloids and magazines there, STINKS TO HIGH HEAVEN.
Of course, in North America, we agree completely.

Likewise, my British friends have told me that "the Commonwealth are" likewise stinks to high heaven.

These are not "matters of opinion". These are matters of sane versus foolish.
If you wish to ally yourself with the usage of cheap tabloids and magazines, you MUST not present that as some form of Standard English.
You do not even know the difference between singular and plural.


D. A. Wood February 27, 2013, 1:16pm

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Something that happens "right now" happens at any instant of time that you care to choose, within reason.

The earth orbits the sun right now.
Pure water tastes good right now.
The Eiffel Tower stands in Paris right now.
The River Thames flows through London right now.
The United States has 50 states right now.


D. A. Wood February 27, 2013, 1:25pm

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Boy, I hope I don't regret this, but let me weigh in as well. D. A. Wood, I think you missed Warsaw Will's point. The simple past tense is used to describe general truths, ongoing states or repetitive actions. It is not used for things that are happening "right now". This is equally true in North America, the USA, and the UK.

If you want to express actions that are actually taking place, you would use the present progressive.

Consider: "Does the moon orbit the earth? It does so, and it is doing so right now"

"It does so" (simple present) means that it is a general truth that the moon orbits the earth. The occurrence is ongoing; it has in the past and will likely continue in the foreseeable future.

"It is doing so right now" (present progressive) means that at this very moment, the moon is orbiting the earth , regardless of what it did yesterday or will do tomorrow.

"It does so right now", while it doesn't sound particularly bad, would technically be a non sequitur.

Compare this to, say: "Do you like to jog? Why yes, I jog. In fact, I'm jogging right now!"

"I jog" means I habitually jog, likely on a regular basis. "I am jogging right now" means that I'm jogging at this very minute, while I'm talking to you, say, on my cell phone.

No one would normally say "I jog right now" to mean that they were actually jogging at this very minute. The only reason someone would say "I jog right now" is if they meant to convey that they jog on a regular basis, but only recently started, as in "I jog right now, but last year I did Pilates all the time."

When people are describing stuff they're actually, actively, currently doing in the Here and Now, they say "I"m going shopping. I'm eating now. I'm trying to finish. I'm doing my homework." They do not say "I go shopping. I eat. I try to finish. I do my homework." Not in North America. Not in the UK. Not anywhere.

porsche February 27, 2013, 3:25pm

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@D.A.W. - I knew it would be fun! And with such a gentleman, too!

This is from the American Heritage Dictionary, quoted in the Free Dictionary:

"Usage Note: In American usage government always takes a singular verb. In British usage government, in the sense of a governing group of officials, takes a plural verb: The government are determined to follow this course. See Usage Note at collective noun."

From New Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

"In BrE it is in order to use either a singular or plural verb after most collective nouns, so long as attendant pronouns are made to follow suit: 'when the jury returns to consider its verdict 'or when the jury return to consider their verdict'. The same principle applies to all the main collectives like 'army, audience, clan, company, crew, court, crew, folk, government, group, herd'. By contrast, in AmE the choice is much more restricted.''

From BBC Learning English - "For example, when we’re talking about the government we can say – “The government has won the election.” Or we can say “The government have won the election.” This depends if we see the government as a collection of individuals"

And from some well-known "tabloids":

"The Government are listening at last, must be election time" (Daily Telegraph)

"According to the TUC, the government are big meanies" (The Economist)

Sir Alex Ferguson is convinced Manchester United have a stronger squad now than their 1999 Treble-winning campaign. (The Independent)

" Liverpool have a corner, and about 20 seconds later Arsenal nearly score" (The Guardian - NB Historical Present!)

"As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have introduced the test to rectify the loophole which has occurred as a result of the decision in the Parkins v Sodexho case." Viscount Younger of Leckie, speaking in the House of Lords (Hansard - 23 Feb 2013)

"and of course the Government have set a target of 25% of procurement from small firms, too" Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, speaking in the House of Commons (Hansard 6 Nov 2012)

"The Labour Party are delighted to be able to offer our members a special discount on a subscription to New Statesman magazine." (Labour Party website)

"The Conservative Party are not responsible for webcasting or any other form of transmission" (Conservative Party website)

Just Google them to check.

Warsaw Will February 28, 2013, 12:29pm

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@D.A.W. A propos apologising:

You originally wrote (just check back - February 24, 2013, 6:25pm):

"So many people have lost sight or the fact that the present tense means RIGHT NOW. Here are some example (sic): The Houses of Parliament stand in London.
A large statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in Washington, D.C.
The Moon orbits the Earth once every 29 days. It is doing so right now."

I wrote (February 26, 2013, 11:02am):
"When you said that the Houses of Parliament stand in London, that's about general time"

You wrote (February 26, 2013, 12:08pm):
"Also, I actually wrote "the Houses of Parliament sit along the Thames in London", and not "stand", as you misread and miscopied"

You wrote (February 27, 2013, 1:06pm):
"I do not like people misquoting me and lying about what I said or wrote!
You have never apoligized (sic) about that, either.
You are obviously a habitual liar and a Philistine, too.
Am I making myself clear? You lied about what I wrote."

Well, once again I'm in total agreement with you. By the way, most people use copy and paste these days; you might remember that the next time you accuse somebody of miscopying what you have written!

Now I would say a good dollop of humble pie was called for, wouldn't you?

Warsaw Will February 28, 2013, 12:48pm

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@D.A.W. - I was going to let this drop, but I think I'll follow your habit of serial comments. Coincidentally, I happened to be doing present tenses with a student this morning. This is from Intelligent Business Intermediate (published by Pearson Longman):

The present simple describes:
a) facts that will not change
b) regular events and processes
c) a scheduled event (in the future)

The present continuous (aka progressive) describes
a) things happening now
b) temporary situations
c) future arrangements

Warsaw Will February 28, 2013, 12:59pm

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D.A.W. says (said) - "I didn't say anything about the "historical present" because that is rarely seen or heard of in the United States in American or Canadian products. "

Here's a look at some of today's stories in the American press. Note that in every case the verb in the present simple in the headline refers to something that has already happened, and is referred to in the body of the article with a past tense:

Pfc. Bradley Manning confessed in open court to providing vast archives of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks. (New York Times)

The unemployment rate in the euro zone edged up in January to a new record, official data showed Friday, as the ailing European economy continued to weigh on the job market. (New York Times)

In a news conference at the White House after the meeting, Obama blamed congressional Republicans for the impasse ... (Washington Post)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry scolded Turkey’s leader Friday for likening Zionism to a “crime against humanity,” (Washington Post)

The pound sank below $1.50 after two separate sets of disappointing data highlighted the difficulties facing the U.K. in returning to growth. (Wall Street Journal)

Protesters prevented construction workers from removing a section of one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall (Wall Street Journal)

A group of Englewood residents along with environmental organizations persuaded a City Council committee on Thursday to delay a hearing ... (Chicago Tribune)

First lady Michelle Obama brought her high energy "Let's Move" campaign to Chicago today (Chicago Tribune)

On an overcast morning, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and sped through the clouds Friday on its way to the International Space Station (Los Angeles Times)

A Muni Metro train's door was knocked clean off Thursday afternoon after it didn't close correctly and hit a platform in a tunnel, officials said. (San Francisco Chronicle)

In his annual state-of-the-county address, the mayor announced the creation of an advisory panel to examine Miami-Dade’s high property-insurance rates — even though the county does not set them. (Miami Herald)

Taco Bell withdrew ground beef from its three U.K. restaurants, the company said in a statement on its website. The adulteration was discovered in “some batches of ground beef supplied to us from one supplier in Europe,” according to the statement. (Toronto Star)

It looks to me as though North American newspapers and their readers are perfectly familiar with the historical present, even if D.A.W. apparently isn't.

Warsaw Will March 1, 2013, 10:59am

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I understand this is a very old post, but I'm with Martin on "all but". I'm sure that you can tell, but I'm not particularly gifted in English theory. Anyway, what I find problematic with "all but" is that, while it may mean "almost" when followed by an adjective, if one has never been exposed to that phrasing and reads the sentence word-for-word, it has no conclusion.

"All" is synonymous with "anything" so, to just read it with out the special exemption, "all but " means literally anything but extinct. The population in question can be declining, increasing, remaining steady, anything! I guess I'm saying the same thing people who were citing "everything except" as how they interpreted it, and I understand idioms are exceptions by nature, but when it comes to "all" and "but", I can't think of a single context to makes either word a synonym for "almost" except for in the case of "all but".

Rory June 1, 2014, 9:05am

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@Rory - On your second point, "all" is certainly synonymous with "everything" but it's anything but (except) synonymous with "anything"! Would you rather give somebody anything of yours they wanted, or everything of yours they wanted?

There is also the expression "anything but" which is very different in meaning from "all but", meaning "just the opposite". This example is from Cambridge Dictionaries -

"She's meant to be really nice but she was anything but nice when I met her."
= she wasn't at all nice, in fact just the opposite

We could compare that with:

"She's meant to be really nice but she all but ignored me at the party."
= she almost completely ignored me, i.e. she did everything except completely ignore me.

You finish off by saying that you can't think of a single context to makes either word a synonym for "almost", and that's correct, they only mean almost when taken together, where "but" has its original meaning of 'except'. (Its more familiar use as a conjunction came into English later). And there are plenty of examples of "but" meaning except, including "There but for the grace of God, go I", which I've already quoted.

As camryn has explained, "all but" really means "almost completely", rather than simply "almost". And it doesn't really mean the opposite of what it suggests at all.

Martin quotes - “Such actions were all but unheard of then”, using camryn's explanation we could read this as "Such actions were everything except (completely) unheard of then" - i.e. mostly unheard of.

But in the end, I don't think analysing it too much is really going to help. Just accept it as an idiom. Nobody has to use it of course, and for many of us (older ones, perhaps) understanding it simply comes naturally. And it's useful to know when you're doing some reading :

"why he should change his mind when it was all but done, she could not perceive" - Jane Austen

"But as for Girton, the matter was talked over calmly, without either tears or kisses, and it was all but settled that Janet should go there in the autumn" - Charles Dickens

"She was all but worshipped by the peasantry around her" - Anthony Trollope

"that she's all but ready to fall to pieces in this same time" - Captain Marryat

"true, she all but consented, and did consent in a sort" - William Hazlitt

Admittedly, it's not that common, though. But then there's also the sub-idiom "in all but name" as in "They're married in all but name". -

Warsaw Will June 1, 2014, 12:05pm

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I've written a blog post on this and similar expressions for foreign learners:

Warsaw Will June 1, 2014, 12:24pm

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I don't see anyone giving a clear answer to the grammatical issue addressed in the topic.

Audy S January 13, 2015, 5:30pm

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Plenty of people use it incorrectly, and it certainly is annoying. They use it for effect, when it just doesn't work, because they really mean something like "well it was pretty much [this]", which breaks it's own meaning.

Someone near the top said "All but one." This is the right way of using it as a "nearly" meaning, because you are setting up a group and then eliminating almost all of it. Not a sloppy "the civilization was all but destroyed" when they mean it actually got destroyed and there is no remaining item to be "all but" about.

I sometimes use "all but" to mean "there are possibilities but definitely not this one." For instance: "In all but tiny quantities, the poison would definitely kill you." Any quantity you can imagine, that isn't tiny, fits the bill.

So it's a matter of where your focus is intended. You are either eliminating everything except for the last item, or you are separating the bulk away from the item to be eliminated.

Usuc August 14, 2015, 6:10am

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Dawson's Creek Season 3 Series 1 at 07:38 hrs

The rites of passage, which once marked growing up, are all but extinct...

Stas September 25, 2015, 2:41pm

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Yes     No