All ___ are not ___: a common statement that’s nearly always wrong

Am I the only person annoyed with this linguistic atrocity? Do a Google search some time on “all ___ are not”, filling in the blank with any common plural noun, or a collective noun with “is” instead of “are.” You’ll find statements like

All women are not a size 2.
All teenagers are not brats.
All paper is not 8 1/2 x 11.
All coffee is not espresso.

These sentences make a statement in the negative about all women, teenagers, paper, or coffee. And they are all false statements. Some women are a size 2. Some teenagers are brats. Lots of paper (in this country, anyway) isĀ  8 1/2 x 11. Some coffee is espresso. Here is what the writers probably meant:

Not all women are a size 2.
Not all teenagers are brats.
Not all paper is 8 1/2 x 11.
Not all coffee is espresso.

Instead of creating an overly broad generalization, this construction negates one. These statements are correct.

It’s harder to argue with a statement like “all women are not the same,” partly because it’s vague enough that the answer “but some women are the same” does not obviously falsify it. Still, careful writers ought to avoid the construction and start the sentence with the negative.

The only time a statement like all ___ are not ___ can be correct is when “all” is somehow modified to make the sentence mean “most,” as in, “Two thirds of all newspapers are not recycled.” In that case, the statistic may or may not be correct, but the sentence is not automatically wrong, as it would be if it started with “all.”


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