What does "all but" mean in this expression?

Today, under pressure from P2P distribution, optical disc piracy in wealthy countries is "all but eliminated" and profit margins elsewhere are slim.

Major report debunks alleged link between piracy and terrorism, Ars Technica

I have seen this used as an intensifier to mean "I only have gratitude", but logic says the sentence means "I have all kinds of feelings towards you, except gratitude."

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    +1 I totally I agree, all but semantically suggest the exact opposite of what it means! Also, I think you've just answered your question yourself. – Noldorin Jan 19 '11 at 20:21
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    Does anybody ever say "I have all but gratitude"? I have never heard this expression, but I would certainly only get the interpretation of "except gratitude". – Kosmonaut Jan 19 '11 at 20:24
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    @badp: If I came across that expression — well, first I would be confused, but assuming that I understood from context what the person meant — I would assume that the person didn't really understand what "all but" means. – Kosmonaut Jan 19 '11 at 20:29
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    @Kosmonaut, badp: I'm almost sure the usage is standard in all contexts as an intensifier. At least in British English. Highly confusing, I know, but that's the way it is. I just avoid the term altogether! – Noldorin Jan 19 '11 at 20:43
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    I vote for a misunderstanding of the "real" meaning, "almost, nearly". If you search for "all but gratitude" on Google, you get about 15 hits, two of which lead to this very question, and the others are used in all kinds of senses but this one, i.e. all but in the sense of "a lot of" is probably very rare. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 25 '11 at 0:23

The apparent contrariness of the meaning of this term has often intrigued me, so I thought I'd do a bit of light research on it.

Wiktionary defines it as follows:

all but (not comparable)
1. Very nearly.

The food is all but finished.

Now, I think that when most people encounter this term, they want to interpret it more as a negative. For example, "The food is all but finished." might be interpreted as:

The food is everything except finished.

However, reverse the two words and it starts to make a lot more sense in terms of the standard meaning. (Even better, replace all with totally.) In other words, the sentence is actually to be interpreted as:

The food is but totally [all] finished.

In this slight rephrasing, it is (to me) much clearer that the term all but actually means almost or nearly. Why the words all and but got reversed, thus obscuring the true meaning. I do not know, but I hope this is partly enlightening.

  • I assumed that the idea was that "all but X" means "everything similar to X, but not X", so that, for example, if a house is "all but destroyed", it suffers every possible type of damage short of actual destruction. – Tanner Swett Jan 2 '13 at 0:31
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    @TannerL.Swett Yeah, that's a different (mis)interpretation to mine, but perfectly valid too. The thing is, "but" really means "almost" or "very nearly" in this case, which is a somewhat odd interpretation compared to normal. – Noldorin Jan 2 '13 at 2:39

The NOAD reports that the meaning of all but is both "very nearly" and "all except."

The subject was all but forgotten.
We have support from all but one of the networks.

I would understand "optical disc piracy in wealthy countries is all but eliminated" as "optical disc piracy in wealthy countries is almost eliminated."


I have all but forgotten about you.

This means that even though much time may have passed, or many events have occurred I have not forgotten about you.

It is emphasizing that no matter what has happened or what I have done (or presumably will happen/do) I haven't forgotten about you.

I don't think your example makes as much sense.

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    "All but forgotten" literally means that I have done everything except for forgetting, so that even though technically I haven't forgotten, I could not be any closer to it. – Kosmonaut Jan 19 '11 at 20:22
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    @Kosmo, but doesn't it also imply that you won't be forgetting any time soon? – jjnguy Jan 19 '11 at 20:24
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    Not in any use that I have ever heard. – Kosmonaut Jan 19 '11 at 20:25
  • @Kosmo, fair enough... – jjnguy Jan 19 '11 at 20:26
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    "all but forgotten" is generally used in the context of "I would never have thought about that if a big, blatant reminder hadn't just come up." (My memory was buried so far down that it took a huge effort on someone else's part to help me dredge it up.) – Hellion Jan 19 '11 at 20:47

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