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I was wondering whether there is a formal rule for or against substituting 'all' for 'both'?

We all know the difference between 'all' and 'both', but look at this question from ELL:

https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/83143/all-vs-both

Here there are answers to the effect that both shall always refer to 2 things, and all can refer to more than one -- is that definition of 'all' widely accepted, and if it thus overlaps with 'both', can 'all' substitute for 'both' at least in certain cases?

Example 1 (2 is specified) :

he has 2 shirts -- both of them are white

he has 2 shirts; all of them are white

Example 2 (2 is implied) :

He crashed his bike. Both the wheels were smashed.

He crashed his bike. ALL the wheels were smashed.

I know that 'both' sounds better whetever clearly applicable, but can 'all' ever substitute for 'both', or is there a clear grammatical rule / convention that "thou shalt not use 'all' wherever 'both' is applicable?"

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  • "How y'all doin'?" – Hot Licks May 19 '17 at 0:35
  • If it's not important that there are precisely two, and if it's not necessary to mention this fact in every sentence, then all covers the territory from zero on up. – John Lawler May 19 '17 at 0:39
  • @Hot Licks thanks, that's one way to refer to 2 people, right! – English Student May 19 '17 at 0:40
  • @John Lawler Thank you, but I am referring to situations where 'two' is implicitly known. Specifically I should like to know whether 'both' is to be preferred to 'all' wherever applicable? – English Student May 19 '17 at 0:42
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    Both means two, and it strictly refers to two - not less and not more. Suppose, you have only two shirts and you haven't explicitly mentioned that number. Then you can say all your shirts. But once you have mentioned two shirts, you have to refer to them as both in positive sentences and neither in negative sentences. If you say my bike got crashed and all the wheels were smashed, there is an implication that you had a 'three-wheeler' bike! Normally a bike implies a two-wheeler vehicle, so the use of both the wheels is unambiguous as well as correct. – mahmud k pukayoor May 19 '17 at 0:52
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If the set has a known number of objects and that number is known to be two, you should use "both". Using "all" will sound unnatural, and it may even cause confusion (by implying you are talking about something else).

When in doubt, avoid ambiguity.

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  • Thank you! That's what I thought. I would appreciate it even more if you could find me some rule that explicitly says so, which would completely answer my question. – English Student May 19 '17 at 0:44
  • English doesn't have a formal governing body, so I'm not going to be able to find you an official rule. – eyeballfrog May 19 '17 at 0:57
  • Official rule is not needed. I HAVE not even found a ruling in a style guide! Please note: I have down- voted your answer by mistake. Kindly make some minor edit in your answer (any small letter or punctuation) so that the software will allow me to correct the error. – English Student May 19 '17 at 1:00
  • Well I think any style guide would support the notion of reducing ambiguity. – eyeballfrog May 19 '17 at 1:07
  • VERY TRUE. It is probably to be understood as self-evident, and therefore not specified. Thanks a lot for your clear answer, and don't forget to make that minor edit! – English Student May 19 '17 at 1:09
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All can indeed be used to refer to everything in a set containing two elements.

It is even possible to say "all two", for example:

I felt bad for taking all two chicken legs and not leaving anything for you, but I was just so hungry.

Yes, it might sound a little weird, but there's no rule against it, and if you're the sort of person who likes logical preciseness, you might be more likely to use "all" in place of "both" in certain circumstances.

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  • It is certainly a very nice example and very appropriate within its own context, when 'two' is 'all' there is -- thanks a lot for adding a fresh dimension! – English Student May 19 '17 at 4:46
  • It does sound weird. This is about language, not about logic. No one talks like that. (By the same "logic", you could also say "all zero people talk like that".) – michael.hor257k May 19 '17 at 8:20
  • @michael.hor257k - I'm looking at the intersection of math (logic) and language. But I promise not to try to force you to do that! – aparente001 May 19 '17 at 18:14

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