Here's a quote from Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue":

Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn ... , that a sign in the store saying ALL ITEMS NOT ON SALE doesn't mean literally what it says (that every item is not on sale) but rather that only some of the items are on sale, ...

Is this true? Is it a common sign for indicating that not all items are on sale? Wouldn't it be more natural to write NOT ALL ITEMS ON SALE?

I am asking because I don't really want to blindly believe Bill Bryson, since his books, although very interesting and entertaining to read, contain a lot of factual errors (intended or not).

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    As @Colin's answer points out, grammatically it's possible to parse such a sign with the intended meaning (not all items are included in the discounted-price sale). That doesn't mean any such sign has ever been displayed (though it's unlikely, since any native speaker would be aware of the ambiguity). Bryson's talking about the vagaries of English syntax, and pointing out that technically speaking our language would actually allow such wording, even though this might seem absurd to a foreigner. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 13:57
  • Like the classic ad disclaimer: "Offer not available in all areas." – David Schwartz Mar 17 '12 at 0:10

I think the answers so far given are concentrating on "on sale", but I interpret the question to be about the scope of "all" and "not".

I first noticed, and was troubled by, the usage "all ... are not ... " to mean "not all ... are ... " about fifty years ago, when I was quite small. Nonetheless, this construction is widely used in English, with this meaning. Furthermore, it is not treated as ambiguous, because to express the "logical" meaning, we would use a different construction with "none" or "no": "No items are on sale".

An old example is the proverb "All that glisters is not gold".

(I agree with you about the unreliability of The mother tongue: he's a journalist, not a linguist, and it shows. I have recently read another book to which I have the same complaint: Planet Word, by J.P.Davidson)

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  • David Crystal thought well of 'Mother Tongue', I recall. – Barrie England Mar 16 '12 at 13:03
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    @Barrie: Yeah, but - great read though he is - you have to watch yourself with ole Bill! I was happily reading his account of three young "rangers on patrol" alone in volcanically active Yellowstone Park. Everything was fine until the part where they all joined hands and leapt together over a recently-widened crack with bubbling lava down below. They didn't make it, and were never seen again, which left me scratching my head for a bit until I realised that "all joined hands" was Bryson exercising artistic license, so I needn't worry about how we could know a detail like that. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 13:48

As others have noted, the ambiguity really has nothing to do with the word "sale", but with the words "all" and "not". If I said, "All of our employees are not accountants", does that mean that none of our employees are accountants, or that some of our employees are not accountants? Etc. That's why I'd generally say "none are" or "only some are" or some other alternative wording rather than "all are not".

I'm curious about the comment that this sort of thing might be a problem for a foreigner. I don't know any languages besides English (and a little stumbling Latin), but don't other languages have similar ambiguities? I'd be surprised if this was a problem unique to English.

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I've never seen that. What you do sometimes see is something like ITEMS NOT IN SALE. A sale, as you probably know, is a store promotion in which some goods are sold at reduced prices. Those that are not being offered at a discount are thus indicated. Bill Bryson, entertaining writer though he is, may, deliberately or unintentionally, have been misreporting.

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    On the other hand, he may well have seen it once and written about it because it stuck in his memory. But you can't generalise from the particular. – Andrew Leach Mar 16 '12 at 11:10
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    @AndrewLeach: Yes. I suppose it's a bit like a sign saying No Smoking Allowed which can be read by the perverse as meaning you don't have to smoke if you don't want to. – Barrie England Mar 16 '12 at 11:20

I think there's a BritE vs. AmerE issue here too.

In British English, "On sale" is the same as "For sale", not necessarily at a reduced price, which would normally be "In (the) sale".

Having said that, "all items not on/in sale" does indeed mean that no items are on/in sale, and should be avoided if the real meaning is "not all items on/in sale" (or "some items not on/in sale").

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  • Per @Colin's answer, Bryson flags up the wording because of the all/not ambiguity, not the preposition used with sale. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 13:50
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    Yes, I just thought I'd flag it for the benefit of any non-native readers who might find it confusing. – DavidR Mar 17 '12 at 15:18
  • @DavidR Note that in American English, saying a product is "on sale" is ambiguous: it usually means that the price has been reduced, but it can also simply mean that the item is available for purchase. – Jay Mar 19 '12 at 15:07

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