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What is the grammar behind the phrase "all's well that ends well"? I understand what it means (all is well because it ended well) but could not for the life of me figure out how this meaning is derived from the original sentence. At first glance, it seems to have two verbs, which, as far as I can tell, is against all sorts of rules of English for a clause (all is well that ends well)? And what is the role of "that" in here? Is it to create a relative clause? Doesn't seem like it to me.

I'm dumbfounded by this phrase and I cannot understand its grammar at all. Any and all help is greatly appreciated!

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    Please cite these "all sort of rules" that purport to forbid sentences from having multiple verbs. Have you confused clauses and sentences?
    – tchrist
    Aug 20, 2022 at 14:36
  • @tchrist I've rephrased the sentence, as I expected people to understand what I meant from context (I couldn't categorize it as a clause, let alone a sentence, since I don't know what its grammar is in the first place and is asking for help!). Aug 20, 2022 at 14:49
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    I'd say it's a stylised / literary "inversion" from that (=anything) [which] ends well [is] all (=completely) well (=good). Compare Handsome is as handsome does. Aug 20, 2022 at 15:26
  • @FumbleFingers Does everything taste good that smells good? Do all projects end late that start late? Does every traveller arrive early who departs early? Do all sentences sound “literary” that are phrased this way?
    – tchrist
    Aug 20, 2022 at 17:20
  • The key is, as John Lawler says, 'extraposition from noun phrase movement.' In particular, with regard to your example, if you have a subject (here the word all) with a long phrase attached to the end of it (here the relative clause that ends well), and then a short verb phrase (here the verb phrase is well), the long phrase that would normally be attached to the subject, can skip over the verb phrase and appear at the end of the sentence. This is where we like to put long phrases in general. So we have an original sentence ... Aug 20, 2022 at 21:22

3 Answers 3

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Try playing around with it and see what happens.

  • All's well that ends well
  • All is well that ends well (unwind the contraction)
  • All that ends well is well (undo the Extraposition from NP;
    note that the is must be stressed here because it's the main verb)

All of these are grammatical and they all mean the same thing. You can go on and unpack more; they'll fit, more or less, into the last example above:

  • All means all events/things/jobs/parties/arguments/...
  • Ends well means (at least) causes no injury or damage, and may mean is enjoyable
  • Well in is well means (the speaker claims) everyone is satisfied (they may be wrong)
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  • Thank you, this cleared up a lot! I just have one more thing to ask though, which is that, why, does a sentence like (1a) "Something that caused concern came up", when extraposed into (1b) "Something came up that caused concern" sounds natural and grammatical, while the extraposition of (2a) "All that ends well is well" into (2b)"All is well that ends well" (seemingly) does not? Does (2b) sound natural to you, or is it of a literary style? If it does, could you please point out what the difference between 2a and 2b is that may have made (2b) so much harder for me to understand? Aug 21, 2022 at 9:00
  • @lil'barbussy Not a native speaker, but both seems equally natural to me.
    – justhalf
    Aug 21, 2022 at 10:46
  • Sorry, I meant "the difference between 1b and 2b" Aug 21, 2022 at 12:21
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    VERDICT: nevermind, i did some poking around on the internet and found this. apparently this is a very old saying from the 1600's when this kind of grammatical style was common, but is obsolete now. no wonder why i was so thrown off when i first read this. other examples of this: "All that glitters is not gold.", "All is lost that is given to a fool." thanks for introducing me to extraposition though, i greatly appreciate it! Aug 21, 2022 at 15:39
  • You're welcome. However, this particular rule is not called "Extraposition". That's a different rule, that moves heavy subject clauses and leaves a dummy it to sound like a subject: That this hurts so much bothers me extraposes to It bothers me that this hurts so much. This rule is called "Extraposition from NP" because it moves relative clauses from after the noun they modify, breaking up the NP (noun phrase) but not the subject, and leaving no dummy behind. Aug 21, 2022 at 16:14
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First of all, there is no rule against having two verbs in a clause. For example: "I may have been speaking." You might have meant "finite verbs", which, when not coordinated, are generally limited to one per finite clause.

This sentence contains two finite verbs and two clauses. There is a superordinate clause ("all's well") that contains a relative clause ("that ends well"). A relative clause usually immediately follows its referent; in that case we would have:

All that ends well is well.

In this case, the relative clause has been "extraposed" to the end of the sentence.

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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Oh haha, yeah. I deleted mine too; thanks for letting me know. Aug 21, 2022 at 19:30
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I am going to assume that you know the meanings of "well" in Shakespearean English.

What is the grammar behind the phrase "all's well that ends well"?

Main clause:

"all - pronoun or anaphoric noun as subject

is - verb

well - adjective as predicative complement

Subordinate clause:

that - relative pronoun introducing a defining clause with the same referent same as "all"

ends - verb

well" - adjective as predicative complement

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    I am going to assume you know the meaning of relative clause (wink) and also that defining relative clauses with that generally modify the preceding noun phrase. But there is no preceding noun phrase here , only a seemingly fully formed clause- hence the OP's question. What is this relative clause modifying? Aug 20, 2022 at 21:38
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    A relative clause may also modify a noun (or pronoun or noun phrase or anything acting as a noun). The referent of the modifying clause would seem to be "all." (Whether this is classified as a noun in this case or a pronoun is irrelevant)
    – ttw
    Aug 21, 2022 at 1:30
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. What is this relative clause modifying? -- the same referent as "all"
    – Greybeard
    Aug 21, 2022 at 15:54

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