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What is the grammatical explanation of the phrase “all that” as in the sentence “I didn’t understand all that much”?

  1. I didn’t understand all that much.

I came across the sentence above, and now wonder if someone could explain the grammar about the phrase “all that”.

For example:

  1. All that glitters is not gold.

In this case, ‘all’ seems a pronoun; ‘that’, a relative pronoun. But ‘that’ in the sentence (1) does not introduce a relative clause. Therefore, the usage may be different.

I do not have any other clues to find out the grammatical explanation.


After discussing with John, I think it is a good idea to add another sentence for further understanding.

  1. I didn't understand all that.

This sentence is very similar to (1), but it could be structurally different from (1).

I hope this comparison help us understand these usage more precisely.

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(All) that much is a quantifier, but more importantly it's an idiomatic Negative Polarity Item.

That is, it can only occur felicitously within the scope of a negative trigger.
Like didn’t. Notice that you can certainly say

  • I didn't understand all that much of what she said.

but you can't say

  • *I understood all that much of what she said.

because there is no negative trigger present.

In the appropriate negative context, it means, basically, not much at all

  • I doubt he enjoyed all that much of the play.
  • It isn't as if she weighed all that much.

And it can also be used with other quantifiers and qualifiers besides much:

  • She isn't all that gorgeous.
  • If it's all that important, why don't we hear more about it?
  • Thank you for the explanation. Seeing variations of this expression, I found the sentence "I did not understand all that." Therefore, I though 'much' in the original sentence can be separable from 'all that'. What do you think? – 243 Sep 15 '14 at 14:39
  • Different construction, different meaning and grammar. That much or all that much (the all is meaningless and serves as an optional intensifier) is a frozen unit when it is used as a negative polarity item. That's what we're talking about. All that is a variant of all of that, which is not a negative polarity item and has a meaningful quantifier all. You can say it in an affirmative statement: I understood all that. But you can't use all that much that way: *I understood all that much. – John Lawler Sep 15 '14 at 15:02
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  1. All is an adjective; to be more precise, a determiner. That is a demonstrative pronoun that functions as a noun; it is modified by all. The construction is similar to all that stuff, except that that functions as an adjective in that sentence, modifying stuff. Here we don't have stuff, so that takes the place of a noun.

  2. All is an adjective/determiner that functions as a noun; many adjectives can function like nouns, such as in the weak perished and red is nice. That is a relative pronoun referring back to all, its antecedent. It introduces the relative clause that glitters. The main clause is all [that glitters] is not gold: the relative clause is restricting/defining, because it restricts what all refers to. Without it, all would refer to more things than with the restrictive relative clause.

  • Thank you for the clear answer. I can understand your opinion clearly, but I have a problem. Do you modify pronoun with an adjective/determiner? – 243 Sep 15 '14 at 14:35
  • @243: Yes: the the pronoun stands for and functions like a noun, it can be modified by an adjective/determiner. – Cerberus Sep 15 '14 at 21:20
  • @ Cerberus: I see. You are right. For example, you could say large one, the one, the first one etc. The pronoun 'one' can be modified by those modifier. But, it seems awkward to say 'large that', the that, or the first that. Could 'all that' be a special case? – 243 Sep 16 '14 at 0:11
  • @243: Absolutely, that is a very special case, because it is a pronoun. Not all nouns can take all adjectives, and that only functions as one: it is unlike more "normal" nouns. An unusual noun like the rich also cannot take most adjectives: *the large rich is not really possible. And the noun red in red is a colour cannot take an article: *the red is a colour is wrong, because the red means something else. – Cerberus Sep 16 '14 at 11:20

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