A phrase commonly heard in English (at least informal English) is something like the following:

Well, this car is good, but all cars are not made equal!

This would be commonly understood by most English speakers to mean the following sentence, which is what I'd use:

Well, this car is good, but not all cars are made equal!

Isn't the first sentence ambiguous? It could mean what most English speakers would take it to mean, but it could also mean (and I'd argue this is what is should mean):

Well, this car is good, but every single car is made differently!

Another of the many variants on this form of words is where it is identified that not all members of a class are the same as a specific member, for example:

This might be bitter, but all fruits are not lemons!

Again I'd take this to mean:

This might be bitter, but not all fruits are lemons!

And again I'd say that the first phrase is in this case not only ambiguous, but plain wrong. It should literally mean:

This might be bitter, but NO fruits are lemons!

When did this curious form of words start to be used, and by whom? And, are my literal meanings correct, or is there a grammatical sense in which, for example, the latter phrase could mean something other than "NO fruits are lemons" when interpreted strictly?


4 Answers 4


The phrase "All X are not made equal" (where 'made' can be substituted for any method of creation) derives from the phrase "All men are not created equal", a phrase used to contrast the popular adage "All men are created equal", most famously used in the US Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;

The sentiment it carries is that some type of a given thing are inherently better than another, due to some aspect of how they were created (born of a 'better race' or from a 'better manufacturer'), e.g. "Not all mean are created equal" for eugenics, "Not all cars are created equal" might be used to suggest one brand is inherently better than another, etc.

Being that it is part of the US Declaration of Independence, US citizens are far more likely to recognise that phrase than others, though it is a fairly well known phrase.

  • 1
    I'd think the reference to Orwell's "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" is more relevant than the Declaration of Independence: no doubt cultures differ. Commented Nov 28, 2011 at 11:17

I think OP's first example is probably a misuse of the phrase being discussed. I can only imagine it being said by someone who has doubts about whether to actually own a car at all. A more commonly-applicable version with minimal changes is...

Well your Ford is good, but not all Fords are [made] equal.

The word "made" isn't necessarily part of this "stock phrase". In this particular case it can be included, because cars are manufactured. But that wouldn't be the case in, for example,

Well, your rottweiler may be safe around babies, but not all dogs are equal.

I see no justification at all for OP's assertion that "every X is different to every other X" is a logical corollary to "not all X are equal". This is simply incorrect. The meaning of the expression is at least some X are not the same as the others (or ...not the same as the one just mentioned).

Effectively, "not all X are equal" is a stock phrase used to point out that just because one particular X has some characteristic, it doesn't automatically follow that all X's have it. Usually with the strong implication that a significant number of X's don't have that characteristic. So my first example might be said by someone who's just been advised to buy a Ford, by a friend who cites his own good Ford as justification for the advice. The speaker is simply pointing out that this justification is based on faulty reasoning of a type Wikipedia calls hasty generalisation .

  • Hmm. I don't understand the downvote with no explanation, particularly when as yet there's no alternative answer that the downvoter might prefer. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 3:55

In the latter part of the phrase in question, three distinct wordings are possible: (1) "not all cars are made equal", (2) "all cars are not made equal", and (3) "all cars are made not equal". The respective meanings seem to be (1) "some cars are made differently", (2) unclear, and (3) "every car is made differently".

I regard (2) as unclear because we are told that cars are "not made equal", that is, we are told something they are not, but we are not told what they are. I find it difficult to determine the exact meaning of "all cars are not made equal" and regard it as ambiguous. For further discussion of the problem see wikipedia re excluded middle: "Many modern logic systems reject the law of excluded middle, replacing it with the concept of negation as failure. That is, there is a third possibility: the truth of a proposition is unknown."

However, one of the answers to the recent question GEdgar refers to may be relevant. In that question the process of "negative raising (shifted or transferred negation)"](http://www.englishcorner.vacau.com/grammar/rules/raising.html) is mentioned, in terms of English-speaking habits: "When we express negative ideas with verbs like think, believe, etc., we prefer to make the first verb negative instead of the second. We shift or transfer the negative from the second verb to the first." By a similar process, many English-speakers will fail to distinguish between (1) and (2), but certainly would distinguish between (2) and (3).


Unfortunately I have no references, but I'm pretty sure that historically even really pedantic people were less precise about these things.

The root of this is a different interpretation of sentences using the word "all", and issues related to this caused disagreement even among philosophers/mathematicians into the 19th century, never mind everyday usage. Consider the difference between William Hamilton's "quantification of the predicate" and the logic of de Morgan and Boole.

The construction "all cars are not made equal" can mean the negation of "all cars are made equal" if you interpret "all cars are made equal" in a certain way to begin with. Parse it as (all cars) are (made equal [to each other]), then the negation of that is (all cars) are not (made equal [to each other]).

This is perfectly respectable in English, albeit potentially ambiguous. It's unfortunately different from what you think it should mean: every car is not equal [to any other car].

With the lemons it's even more reliant on that group meaning of "all". "All fruits are lemons" would be taken to mean the that group of "all fruits" has the property, collectively, of being lemons. So far so good, but the symbolic logic version "every fruit, individually, is a lemon" is logically equivalent but structured differently. Then the first interpretation of "all fruits are not lemons" takes the "not" to say that "all fruits", collectively, do not have the property of being lemons. It's not "all fruits" that are lemons, it's only "some fruits", so one says "ah, but all fruits are not lemons". Whereas you expect the negation to fall inside the the "all" quantifier in the modern symbolic-logic proposition, to result in "all fruits have the property of not being lemons", that is "every fruit, individually, is not a lemon". Which is false.

As the link in comments shows, another example is "All is not lost", from Paradise Lost. This means "not (all is lost)", it doesn't mean "each thing is still here". Etymology gets tougher that far back because of the relatively small volume of published work -- even if Milton is the first reference we have (and I'm not claiming it is), then that doesn't mean he started it. No lesser poets than the lads of Coldplay maintain the tradition into the present day with a song named "Everything's Not Lost". There's certainly plenty of precedent for the "logically wrong" usage, and I don't know of any reason to hold that your meanings are more correct in English.

Your preferred meanings are, I agree, more logical by modern standards of the quantifier "all". But if logicians were in charge (rather than real observed used of the English language) then "I ain't got none" would mean I have some. Which it never means. For all that it should mean that, and for all that people's parents and teachers tell them it means that, it continues not to mean that.

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