My question is about how a negated "all", "any", and "every" statements are usually and correctly understood in English. I have just realized an apparent parsing ambiguity in all such statements (i.e., two different possible readings). Consider the following examples, each containing not and then all/any/every:

  1. "The giraffe was not standing on all/any/every one of its legs."

  2. "The talk was not understood by all/any/every member(s) of the audience."

  3. We do not live far from all/any/every one of the best museums in the city.

The ambiguity is, in each case: (1) is either "The giraffe was standing on none of its legs" or "The giraffe was standing on less than 4 legs"; (2) is either "The talk was was lost on everyone" or "The talk was lost on at least one person"; (3) is either "We live close to every museum" or "We live close to at least one museum."

But the word choice all/any/every seems to give some indication:

  1. Using all seems to imply less than 4 legs. Using any seems to imply 0 legs. Using every one could go either way for me.

  2. Using all seems to imply at least one person was lost. Using any seems to apply everyone was lost. Using every could go either way.

  3. This one breaks the pattern. Using all, any, or every one all seem to imply being close to every museum.

So my question: What general rules can be used to determine which of the two interpretations is valid? What are the patterns involving all, any, and every? What are the patterns based on the placement of not within the sentence?

Bonus: Is there any data on the usage and interpretation in English of negation before an all/any/every statement?


P.S. It may clear things up to consider the logical parsings of the statement. The two interpretations of (1) are (roughly)

(The giraffe) (was not) (standing on all of its legs)


(The giraffe) was (not standing) (on all of its legs).

Although it is confusing to wrap one's mind around the two readings, they both seem equally valid to me and the logical form makes it clear they are distinct (I hope I have also communicated that to some degree in the examples above).


I originally noticed this based on an excerpt from a legal document defining unattended vehicles:

Motor Vehicle...That is left unattended on or along a highway or other public property for more than forty-eight (48) hours and does not bear all of the following:

a. Valid registration plate.

b. A current certificate of inspection.

c. An ascertainable vehicle identification number.

So I asked on Law StackExchange. Amusingly, the answer they gave contains exactly the same not...all ambiguity as in my original excerpt. So I decided to take it here, with more simple and clear examples.

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    Answered at “Everything is not…” – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '18 at 23:25
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    @EdwinAshworth I will not presume to know or not whether you read my post. But the question you link is at best tangentially related. The form considered there (everything is not) is not what I ask about, but more importantly I give specific examples here where it is interpreted one way and the other way, so a universal "it always means X" is not valid. I am asking about the general rules governing the situation. – 6005 Feb 19 '18 at 23:48
  • I took care to write 'answered'...."In English, sentences containing both a negative and a quantifier, or a negative and a modal, or a modal and a quantifier are ambiguous, unless some care is taken in phrasing them. If ... there is both a universal quantifier [(eg] everything [)] and a negative particle not, then there will normally be two meanings ... In fact, virtually every possible English sentence is multiply ambiguous in print (though not nearly so much in speech, where rhythm and intonation usually distinguish nicely), but ... – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '18 at 23:55
  • because we can figure out what's likely we happily ignore the unlikely but logically possible meanings and go for the contextually sensible ones." J Lawler. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '18 at 23:56
  • Thanks, I do see that that answer is relevant. The question and top answer seem mostly unrelated. – 6005 Feb 19 '18 at 23:57

Legal documents should be capable of being parsed in accordance with the strict rules of logic. (That does not mean that in practice they are so capable: hence the enormous incomes of lawyers.) so, in that formalism there is a rigorous definition of what is meant by "A and not all of B, C, D".

But in ordinary speech, slightly different rules may apply:"the talk was not understood by any of the audience" is unlikely to be literally true. The speaker does not know. It is his way of saying that he thinks it was so difficult that most members of the audience would not have understood it (but he actually does not know). Whereas, "the talk was not understood by all the members of the audience" could be a factual statement but more likely a criticism of the audience (why are they here, if they are so stupid?). "The talk was not understood by every member of the audience": what talk ever is? Someone might say that ironically, meaning that the talk was incomprehensible.

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  • Thanks for your input. I agree that in the audience case, those implications are probably valid. I am wondering if there are any definite rules and patterns to the usage more generally. (My sentences 1-3 seem to indicate that the pattern, if it exists, is somewhat non-obvious.) – 6005 Feb 19 '18 at 23:52
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    My opinion is that in each case there are two possible patterns: the rules of formal logic on the one hand, and how the words would be used in practice on the other. The context will guide you as to which is the more likely to apply in any particular case, if there is any doubt. – JeremyC Feb 19 '18 at 23:55

The 'not' negates the entirety of the rest of the clause.

So in the positive "The talk was understood by all of the audience" means every single one of the audience understood the talk.

"The talk was not understood by all of the audience" means that the above positive statement is not true. At least one audience member did not understand the talk.

The stronger negative could be phrased as "The talk was understood by not one of the audience", or "Not one of the audience understood the talk". "None" could be used in place of "not one". "The talk was not understood by any of the audience" would also work for the stronger case.

Your third example is an unusual one. Most native speakers would not use that phraseology, but say something like "We live not far from all the best museums", which is a positive statement of living within a certain distance 'not far' from all the museums.

As said elsewhere, generalization about "all" or "none" of an audience are unlikely to be literally true, but that does not affect the grammar.

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  • Thanks. But this doesn't seem to be a universal rule, considering case (3) with all. Do you have any thoughts on why it doesn't work there? – 6005 Feb 20 '18 at 2:37
  • I'm not totally convinced that a rule as general as this one applies, but there may be special cases of it that are almost always true. – 6005 Feb 20 '18 at 2:38

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