Here's two ways I've seen the "all, but" idiom used:

"Close all tabs but this one" (Any modern application with a number of tabs might have this as an option.) It means "close all the tabs, but not this one".

"With that goal, the championship is all but decided". This seems to mean "you can say/do whatever (all) you want, (but) it won't change who wins the championship."

Is one of these usages more correct than the other?


Technically, you're dealing with two different phrases. Which one is correct depends on your usage of them, and in your two examples, both are equally correct.

When you insert a noun in between the two words ("all x but"), you are referring to a collection of x but noting that there are exceptions.

The "all but" idiom refers to the fact that the subject of the idiom is as close to being described by the adjective as it can be without being completely and accurately described by that adjective. Saying that the championship is "all but" decided is saying that, while it is not officially 'decided', it's so close to being decided that the distinction is hard to discern.

The key difference is that, if you replaced 'but' with 'except' in the first instance, it would still make sense:

Close all tabs except this one.

However, with the second instance, it is not considered a proper use:

The championship is all except decided.

The confusion exists because, sometimes, you can remove 'x' from the first use:

All but the oldest fruit was still edible.

How you can tell the difference here is that you can easily move the subject (fruit) between "all" and "but" and the sentence will still make sense:

All fruit but the oldest was still edible.

Also, as I mentioned before, either one of the last two examples makes sense when you replace "but" with "except", indicating that it is being used to imply the "all x but" descriptor.

  • I thought "all but" means essentially? – most venerable sir Jul 2 '15 at 20:08
  • @Doeser Correct. In my answer, I say that "the subject of the idiom is as close to being described by the adjective as it can be without being completely and accurately described by that adjective". In other words, "it's as close as you can get to how you described it without it actually being how you described it". :) – Shaun Jul 3 '15 at 0:20
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    interesting, i always thought the phrase "all but decided" meant exactly the opposite (not decided at all) – Brian H. Oct 5 '17 at 14:37
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    It seems that I'm late to the party, but can you elaborate on how to distinguish between the two meanings. Here's an excerpt from the NYT: "In September, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, leaving the island devastated and all but destroying its power grid." I understand from context that the power grid was destroyed, but is it correct to say, for instance: "I dropped the basket and broke all but one egg", meaning only one egg was left intact? – Boyan Kushlev Dec 22 '17 at 20:33
  • @BoyanKushlev It helps to think of all but as a synonym for essentially in the phrase "all but destroying its power grid". That use implies that some very small part of the power grid remained intact. Its use is to emphasize how catastrophic the destruction was to the power grid. Your use of "all but one egg" makes sense as a sentence, but you're not using the all but idiom in that sentence. Saying "I dropped the basket and broke essentially one egg" doesn't make sense - it's actually the opposite of what you're conveying. – Shaun Jan 11 '18 at 21:18

As reported from the Oxford Living Dictionaries (but also from the NOAD I had on my Mac Mini) all but has the following meanings.

  1. very nearly: the subject was all but forgotten.
  2. all except: we have support from all but one of the networks.

In both sentences you reported, the meaning is the second one.

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    No, "the championship is very nearly decided" and "close all tabs except this" are different. – Carlos Jan 26 '11 at 11:24

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