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I keep hearing people say everything is not… which frustrating because it is ambiguous. It could mean either

Nothing is… (for the set of all things, no thing is…)

or

Not everything is… (for the set of all things, some things are not…/not all things are…)

I have been hearing it more and more in the past few years. In fact, when you Google the phrase everything is not, you get Selena Gomez’s rendition of the Wizards of Waverly Place theme song which only further popularizes it with the youth.

Is this phrase grammatically correct/legitimate (ie, would an English teacher complain?), and if so, which is the correct meaning (if any)?

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This looks a lot like peeving disguised as a question, which is off topic, as per the FAQ. –  Mahnax Dec 4 '11 at 0:56
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Your perception is incorrect. In fact, Ngrams shows that "everything is not" is slowly losing in popularity to "not everything is". If anything, people are slowly becoming less illiterate (at least, according to your "definition" of being illiterate as using "everything is not"). See the Ngram in my answer. –  Peter Shor Dec 4 '11 at 1:08
    
> Your perception is incorrect @Peter, well it is a subject perception. I had heard few, if any times for a few decades then pretty much every week (at least on screen). –  Synetech Dec 4 '11 at 1:19
    
@Manhnax, would the question be any better if the words “really annoyed” were removed? Suddenly/magically the question becomes valid? It’s a simple question: is it legitimate grammar? would an English teacher complain? –  Synetech Dec 4 '11 at 1:22
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This appears to be a question with peeving included, rather than peeving disguised as a question. The FAQ doesn't say anything about this. If you think it should, bring it up on meta. –  Peter Shor Dec 4 '11 at 1:55

4 Answers 4

Looking in Google Ngrams, people have been using the phrase "everything is not" for the last 400 years. If you actually look at the instances, virtually all of them (except those written by logicians or Buddhist philosophers) mean "not everything is", and virtually nobody uses it to mean "nothing is". This phrase is only ambiguous for logicians. The correct meaning (if you're not a logician) is "not everything is".

Unfortunately for logicians, language is not always based on logic.

Even Shakespeare had his characters use "all is not" in this way:

All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told: —(The Merchant of Venice)

All have not offended; —(Timon of Athens)

He did not mean "Nothing that glisters is gold" and "None have offended" by these.

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The correct grammatical (and also mathematical) meaning of the phrase is the former one:

Nothing is... (for the set of all things, no thing is...)

But unfortunately in the majority of cases people mean the latter one:

Not everything is... (for the set of all things, some things are not.../not all things are...)

I wouldn't say the phrase is ambiguous, it's just that people are used to using it incorrectly and you won't change that.

If you don't want to be misunderstood, don't use the phrase. If you want to annoy the people using it, misunderstand them.

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OK what am I missing? Shouldn't "Everything is not" and "Not everything is" be equivalent? It's the same words just another order. –  Lynn Dec 4 '11 at 0:47
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No, order matters. –  GEdgar Dec 4 '11 at 0:57
    
> If you want to annoy people using it, misunderstood them. Huh? –  Synetech Dec 4 '11 at 1:13
    
@Synetechinc.: fixed, thanks! I'm tired ... –  RiMMER Dec 4 '11 at 1:14
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Hehe, I guess I took your advice. :-D –  Synetech Dec 4 '11 at 1:23

In English, sentences containing both a negative and a quantifier, or a negative and a modal, or a modal and a quantifier are ambiguous, unless some care is taken in phrasing them. If (as here) there is both a universal quantifier everything and a negative particle not, then there will normally be two meanings:

  • one with the negative inside the scope of the quantifier : (∀x)¬P(x)
  • one with the negative outside the scope of the quantifier : ¬(∀x)P(x).

This is true of any sentence that contains any two logical Operators (Modals, Negatives, Quantifiers). In other words, such ambiguities are unavoidable, so you might as well relax; they're gonna be around a long time, and who needs the tsures?

In fact, virtually every possible English sentence is multiply ambiguous in print (though not nearly so much in speech, where rhythm and intonation usually distinguish nicely), but because we can figure out what's likely we happily ignore the unlikely but logically possible meanings and go for the contextually sensible ones.

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I would say that if you have a universal quantifier and a not, that traditional English grammar (used since Shakespeare's time) says that it means ¬(∀x)P(x). For example, "all that glisters is not gold". However, in the past century or two, logical-minded prescriptivist grammarians have confused the issue. –  Peter Shor Dec 4 '11 at 1:59
    
That's certainly the contextually sensible meaning in this case, and in Shakespeare's. But it's not the only one in every case. Whether or not they are prescriptivist grammarians or logical-minded, some people do sometimes use these sentences intending to be understood in the (∀x)¬P(x) sense. Whether it's the traditionally "correct" understanding or not, it is their understanding. –  John Lawler Dec 4 '11 at 4:28
    
When the negation applies to the verb, the scope is outside the qualifier; when applied to a predicate or object, it is inside. In cases where it's clear whether the negation applies to the verb or its target, there's no ambiguity. Compare "We can't leave because everyone isn't here" or "We can't leave because everyone is in room 42-C--not here." Also, just as "some" in English (though not logic) tends to imply "not all", likewise "not all" tends to imply "at least one/some". –  supercat Jul 16 at 20:11
    
Do you mean "quantifier"? Those are logical annotations, by the way, not semantic ones. English quantifiers are much more complex than logical ones. Especially when used with because; consider He doesn't hurt you because he likes you -- does it mean he likes you and therefore he doesn't hurt you, or does it mean that the fact he likes you is not the reason for his hurting you? –  John Lawler Jul 16 at 20:19

Peter's pertinent quotation apart, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing, for example, Everything is not as it seems, but, whatever else it is, it’s grammatical. You don’t have to like it and you don’t have to use it, because alternatives are available. Language takes its meaning from the context in which it is used as much as from its component parts. Everything is not . . . will only rarely be ambiguous.

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