Do you say “All but one person forgets something” or “All but one person forget something”?

I'm assuming that if all means five people, for example, then the example can be rewritten as Four people forget something, so the latter sentence would be correct, but I'm not sure.

  • All indicates third person plural. Normal conjugation rules apply. – Matt E. Эллен Mar 25 '13 at 11:47
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Plural. Don't get confused by the word "one" popping up in there. "One" is not the subject of the sentence. The entire phrase "all but one" is the subject, and it is treated as plural because it IS plural. It's a group.

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  • 'All but one' in the OP is certainly not 'a mass noun' - the expression is not any sort of noun. It is a multi-word quantifier (compare more than ten and compare its distribution with many). See linguistics.ucla.edu/people/keenan/Papers/… . As a multi-word quantifier, 'rules' for concord can be confusing, rather arbitrary, and in dispute, as with 'one or more is / are' ( english.stackexchange.com/questions/13284/… ). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '13 at 11:19
  • @EdwinAshworth Thanks; you're quite right that "all but one" is not a mass noun. I admit to being sloppy with the precise linguistic identification of it, since if used alone it functions as a pronoun, and if given the noun to which it refers, in this case "person(s)", it would be part of a noun phrase. And you are certainly correct that the phrase is a quantifier, but I still would accept that it functions as a pronoun when the noun it quantifies is absent. – John M. Landsberg Mar 21 '13 at 3:25

Since all swans but one are white is indisputably correct, I would perhaps say ?all but one swan are white; the singular *all but one swan is white doesn't make sense.

However, I think all swans but one are white is (nearly?) always superior to all but one swan are/is white, and so I would probably never write the latter either way. (But I would use all but one swan when it is not followed by a finite verb.)

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  • If you require English constructions to make sense (particularly in the area of concord), you have some stiff opposition in Prof CS Lewis (see the thread referenced above). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '13 at 11:28
  • @EdwinAshworth: I'm not expecting the construction to make sense, but the sentence, and all but one swans is white just sounds like nonsense to me. You haven't told me what you think of it. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 20 '13 at 15:34
  • I was referring to your comment 'all but one swan is white doesn't make sense.' More than one man was injured doesn't make sense but is acceptable English. // All but one swans is white doesn't make sense and isn't acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '13 at 17:59
  • @EdwinAshworth: Absolutely, so more than one is different. Perhaps we mean different things by "make sense". I just mean that I go "huh, what?" when I read that. You still haven't told me what you think of all but one swan is white. I just think it shouldn't be used at all. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 20 '13 at 19:22
  • Being less subjective, internet usage is seen to be divided: (journals.tc-library.org/index.php/tesol/article/download/158/156) sufficient to achieve compliance in all but one case (elanguage.net/journals/salt/article/download/21.176/2608) we remove all but one atom witness to guard against a cumulative interpretation (arxiv.org/pdf/1007.4443) by the elimination of all but one variables (www.ung.si/~rzaucer/papers/MarusicZaucer-2006-Review-of-STUF.pdf) all but one consonants have lenition ... The choice seems influenced by the wider context (eg 'have lentition'). I'd use 'swans are' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '13 at 21:48

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