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I saw a product review that was complaining about the built-in microphone of the camera, and in one paragraph stated it was 'all but useless'. I have seen 'all but [negative word]' in different places before to describe something as bad, but shouldn't it mean that it is everything (including good things) except the bad thing; i.e it is not useless as it is all of the good things but not the useless one?

Could someone please explain the correct usage, and why people do/don't use it?

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    Logically you are right, but idioms (by definition) do not employ language logically. And it is a well-established idiom to say something is "all but useless/hopeless/lost etc". And it means that it is so bad it is almost that thing. – WS2 Aug 6 '18 at 10:35
  • So logically it would mean that everything bad had happened except it being useless so far; so it is not useless yet? – Geza Kerecsenyi Aug 6 '18 at 11:02
  • You are right. The idiom is often used to emphasise how bad something is. – WS2 Aug 6 '18 at 13:11
  • Also, duplicate of all but none but - usage. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 4 '19 at 18:00
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all but phrase 1 Very nearly. ‘the subject was all but forgotten’ - ODO

The straightforward sense is that the reviewer was claiming that the product was nearly useless. This is consistent with the review complaining about the product.

Oddly enough, if you stress the word but loudly enough, the sense flips to a defense against the product's uselessness.

Consider:

  • Reviewer: This microphone is all but useless. It hisses and spits, and barely transmits a word I speak into it.

  • Manufacturer: On the contrary, it is all but useless. Obviously, you haven't paired it with the solid gold contacts it was designed for.

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    This makes sense now; I was just automatically interpreting it in the sense of the latter, but with context I now understand the point. – Geza Kerecsenyi Aug 6 '18 at 11:22
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    In the specific context of a rebuttal, all but works here; but note that in other contexts, the meaning ‘far from’ would normally be phrased as anything but (‘it’s anything but useless’), rather than all but. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 6 '18 at 11:25
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, agreed. I'm glad I used the word "defense" in my answer. :) – Lawrence Aug 6 '18 at 11:38
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The "all" in "all but" shouldn't be taken on its own as meaning "everything", but together as a "just short of" or "almost". I can't quite come up with a good reason why this is though.

"All but useless" is saying "it is functional, it can be used, but it is so poor you'll barely notice it if it wasn't"

There are plenty of whiners out there, who throw in exageration, expletives, and colourful witicisms, but one who uses an "all but useless" is saying "hey I can be objective, I admit it works, BUT...." It lends a measure of credibility that can actually press a point stronger than just decrying the product.

  • I marked @Lawrence as answer, as while yours makes a similar point Lawrence had a better explanation. – Geza Kerecsenyi Aug 6 '18 at 11:29

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