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For a clause of the type [all but a few X] [Y], there seem to be two possible interpretations. The first one is "Y is the case for all things/people/places, except for a few X," as in the following quotations:

  • Moammer Gadhafi says his regime is still alive in Libya and is calling his opponents takeover of all but a few pockets of the country a charade.
  • Stating the obvious to all but a few Supreme Court Justices, quoting an earlier decision, Scalia wrote, " We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. "
  • After launch, the spacecraft began its voyage through the void of space and was promptly forgotten by all but a few scientists and space enthusiasts.

The second one is "Y is the case for all X, except for a few of X," as in the following quotations:

  • All but a few entry-level, low-cost models with screen sizes greater than 40 inches have the 1920-by-1080 resolution of " full HD " (1080p).
  • Vazquez outperformed all but a few NL starters.
  • But Ismail never lets his political convictions get in the way of his business. He supplies most government agencies and all but a few foreign embassies in Washington.

What exactly is the semantic difference between the two variants, and how can their occurrence be predicted?

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So your question is, essentially, how can you tell if the spacecraft was forgotten about by everyone (save for a few scientists), or if it was forgotten about by all space scientists (except for a few who remained interested). Am I getting that right? – J.R. Dec 28 '12 at 1:45
@J.R. yes, exactly. – jlovegren Dec 28 '12 at 2:25
I think some constructs in English are inherently ambiguous (like the one you're asking about), and we must rely on context to make a judgement call. In the first case, a writer may be able to avoid the ambiguity by using "everyone" instead of "all"; as a reader, you have to do your best to figure out what was meant. I think your 1b is a particularly good example; it's hard to tell if "all" there means all the other Justices, everyone else in the courtroom that day, or just about any citizen in the country. – J.R. Dec 28 '12 at 10:12

Semantically they're all the same. In 2b and 2c all is a quantifier:

2a. All models &c except a few [specified] [ones]
2b. All NL starters except a few [unspecified] [ones]
2c. All foreign embassies except a few [unspecified][ones]

What confuses the issue In 1b and 1c is rewriting this structure using all as a pronoun. These sentences name the excepted members of "all" with nouns which are not obviously generalizable as members of the set to which the pronoun refers, “all people”. The result is ambiguity — your first instinct is to read these, on the model of the second group, as “all Justices but a few” and “all scientists and enthusiasts but a few”. If the authors had explicitly named their sets there would be no ambiguity:

1b. ... obvious to all [people] except a few [specified] [ones]
1c. ... forgotten by all [people] except a few [specified] [ones]

Alternatively, they could have said "everybody except [exceptions].

1a looks very similar, but “all” only wobbles briefly toward “all pockets” before being yanked back to its proper reference, “all of the country”. 1b and 1c never provide such a correction. Country and pockets aren’t perfectly parallel, but they’re enough to make the expression clear:

1.a ... all [parts] of the country except a few [characterized as pockets] [ones]

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I've no idea who/what Vazquez and NL starters are, but it seems to me OP's 2b could validly be used in contexts where those Vazquez didn't in fact outperform most (or even all) NL's, or most/all NL starters. All we know for sure is he outperformed the vast majority of his competitors (whoever they might be), and that proportion is even higher for competitors who aren't NL (or aren't NL starters). – FumbleFingers Dec 28 '12 at 16:04
@FumbleFingers That could be the sense; but the gulf between major-league players and all others is so deep that it's unlikely. Absent a very unusual precedent context, I think it's clear that Javier Vazquez is being compared to other National League starting pitchers - of which there are in any given season between 75 and 100. – StoneyB Dec 28 '12 at 16:20
Okay, I admit I did kinda suspect that NL stood for National League. But I specifically avoided Googling to confirm that, because insofar as we're talking about what OP's actual words might mean, I'm solidly behind J.R.'s comment that we must rely on context to make a judgement call. There could be constructions and contexts where it's almost impossible for anyone except the speaker himself to know the exact scope of all but a few. – FumbleFingers Dec 28 '12 at 17:13
@FumbleFingers True enough. If there's not enough context, then the Vazquez piece is ambiguous, like 1b and 1c. Similarly, the phrase postposited to monitors is dubious - are we talking about "all models with X except" or "all models except a few ... with X"? But in any case, we're not dealing with two different constructions - we're dealing with good and bad uses of one construction. – StoneyB Dec 28 '12 at 17:29
Well, in OP's 2a, the scope of all but a few is definitely "models" of some type. But there are three more modifiers involved ("entry-level", "low-cost" and "with screen sizes greater than 40 inches"). It seems to me any or all of those modifiers might be either limiting the type of models we're talking about (unless it applies, they're not even part of the "all"), or giving further details about "the few". – FumbleFingers Dec 28 '12 at 17:42

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