[Neal Whitman (visiting from, June 24, 2004 at 1:30pm] Trackbacks
When I Say Everyone Can't, I Mean It!

One time back in elementary school, I heard a teacher talking about the logistics of an upcoming field trip, and she said something like this:

  1. Everyone can't fit on the bus.

I was confused. Did she seriously mean to say that not a single one of us could fit on the bus? How was that possible? Oh, wait—she must mean that not everyone could fit on the bus. But even when I'd figured out what she'd really meant, mentally attaching the intended meaning to the actual utterance was like trying to push two magnets together the wrong way.

This happened whenever I heard a sentence with a universal subject (e.g, everyone) and a negated main verb (e.g, can't). The resistance was so strong that for years, I thought the adage "All that glitters isn't gold" meant that by golly, if it glittered, it wasn't gold! Of course, I always thought it would make more real-world sense to say that not everything that glittered was gold, but hey, that wasn't how the saying went, and who was I to try to reinterpret it to suit my own taste?

In formal semantic terms, I was taking the negation to have scope only over the rest of the verb phrase, as illustrated in (2) with the Everyone can't fit example. I balked at allowing the negation to have scope over the whole sentence, as illustrated in (3):

  1. For every person x, x cannot fit on the bus.
    (I.e., No one can fit on the bus.)
    every(x, ~fit_on_bus(x))
  2. It is not the case that everyone can fit on the bus.
    (I.e., Not everyone can fit on the bus.)
    ~(every(x, fit_on_bus(x)))

Through the years, I (in company with many other people with strong opinions about English grammar) remained convinced that anyone who said "Everyone can't" and meant "Not everyone can" was making a mistake, plain and simple, despite the accumulating evidence that for many people, both scopings shown in (2) and (3) were OK.

As a linguist, though, I can't simply dismiss the scoping in (3) as a mistake. If I want to accurately describe how speakers are using a language, I have to respect the fact that Everyone can't is used by many speakers to mean "Not everyone can", and try to uncover the grammar rules that people are following that let them do this. This is not to say I have to like the construction; in writing-instructor mode, I can and do encourage writers to avoid it for the sake of clarity. But in linguist mode, to say that Everyone can't is wrong is just plain irresponsible.

Having recognized the two scopings of (1) as a fact of English, the task is now to write a grammar such that both scopings are generated. In fact, it turns out that it is easy to do this. First consider sentences like (4), similar to (1) except that the everyone is now an object instead of the subject.

  1. I can't talk to everyone.
    (I.e., it is not the case that I can talk to everyone.)

This sentence has two scopings for the negation, shown in (5) and (6), both of which are completely OK for me, and for every other English speaker as far as I know. And once you specify definitions for your negation and quantifiers such as every so that you can generate a sentence like (4) with these two scopings, the two scopings for sentences like (1) are generated automatically.

  1. For every person x, I cannot talk to x.
    (I.e., I can't talk to anyone.)
    every (x, ~(I_can_talk_to(x)))
  2. It is not the case that I can talk to everyone.
    ~(every (x, I_can_talk_to(x)))

Semanticists have known this for years, and the usual thinking about why some people take issue with saying "Everyone can't" when they mean "Not everyone can" is that it's an issue of avoiding ambiguity: Not everyone can is more specific than Everyone can't, so why not just say that if it's what you mean, and reserve Everyone can't for situations when you mean "No one can"? (Or for that matter, avoid Everyone can't entirely, and say "No one can," if that's what you mean.) I'm pretty sure that this is the position that Larry Horn takes in his authoritative A Natural History of Negation, though I'd have to look it up again just to make sure.

This is the position I have defended in recent years in discussions with my parents and my brother Glen. However, Glen recently raised a telling point. In school we learned the usual prescriptive rules about not splitting infinitives, not starting sentences with because, and the other favorites, and in that way learned (or refused to learn) that we shouldn't do these things that we'd been doing for years. But when I was getting confused by Everyone can't fit on the bus, nobody was telling me that the teacher was making a mistake. My rejection of the "Not everyone can" meaning (and his, too) came from the gut, not from a usage manual. So wasn't it possible that in our dialect of English, it really and truly is ungrammatical for Everyone can't to mean "Not everyone can"?

I've been working on this problem for a week or two, now, and I can say that it is much easier to arrange things so that scopings (2), (3), (5), and (6) are generated than it is so that (2), (5), and (6) but not (3) are generated. It can be done, but at a minimum, it will require that there be two definitions for can't, one of which will give you the narrow-scope negations seen in (2) and (5), and the other of which will give you the wide-scope negation seen in (6), and not allow the one in (3). Probably we'll also have to say that subject-everyone has one syntactic category, while object-everyone has another one. Both these measures are ill-motivated (read: hacky) proposals, good for solving the current problem, but without any independent evidence in their favor.

What would be some independent evidence? If we're proposing that the single word can't (or other negation) is ambiguous between the two relevant meanings, then we could expect that there would be other languages out there in which the two meanings are hooked up to two different words. Likewise, if we're claiming that everyone is ambiguous between a subject version and an object version, perhaps there are other languages out there where there are actually two words for the two meanings, instead of one ambiguous one—not just the same word with different case markings, but actual different words. Of course, if such evidence is never found, it doesn't mean that our analysis is wrong, just that there is not much reason to put credence in it. But if evidence like this did turn up, wouldn't that be cool?


Several readers have noted that "Everyone can/can't fit on the bus" is ambiguous between a distributive reading (each person is/isn't individually able to fit) and a cumulative one (the group of people can/can't fit), which clouds the issue of the scope of the negation. Here is a better-chosen example: Everyone didn't go. I still can get only the "Nobody went" reading (though I can recognize when people other speakers intend the "Some didn't go" reading).

Some readers have also observed that they get only the "not everybody" reading of (4). I admit, this reading is the much-preferred one for me, though I seem to recall situations in which the other reading was appropriate and grammatical. But even if the "not everybody" (i.e. wide-scope negation) reading is the only one available here, it's still strangely different from the obligatory narrow-scope negation that I have to have for (1).

Jeremy Osner (www):
IANAL (I am not a linguist) but it strikes me that your preferred phrasing "Not everyone can fit on the bus" is just wrong. If I heard someone say that I would take them to mean "some person x exists such that x cannot fit on the bus" which seems unlikely. I think the better way to parse "Everyone can't fit on the bus" is, to understand "Everyone" as a singular noun referring to the whole class rather than as a collection of students -- "The whole class cannot fit on the bus."
6.24.2004 3:40pm
Monsyne Dragon (mail):
Er, actually, both ways of saying the sentance are ambiguous.
That's because "everyone" does have two meanings. This being because it is a compound word, and one of the roots ("Every") has two meanings. It can mean "Each one of a set of things" or "All of a set of things together". There is no difference between subject useage and object usage.
6.24.2004 5:02pm
Howard Green (mail):
I heard the follwing announcement this morning on a New Jersey Transit train: "All doors will not open." I'm pretty sure this was demonstrably not the case. I am not writing this on a train from which I could not disembark when all doors did not open, but from the office I reached after I left the train when most of the doors did open.
6.24.2004 5:03pm
Michael Williams (mail) (www):
Wow, a commenting opportunity. I can't resist.

I'm not a linguist, but I've studied a lot of linguistics as a part of my AI graduate work, and this is an excellent illustration of why natural language processing is nearly intractable for computers. The vast majority of humanity learns to speak and understand speech without any (or minimal) appreciation for the underlying complexity. We can all do it, but no one has any idea how.
6.24.2004 5:06pm
Robert Lutton:
It is not a problem with the ambiguity of "Everyone" or of "Can't". The lack of precision come from the fact that there is an assumed final statement.

Everyone can't fit on the bus [at the same time]. These assumed statement are fundamental...and if you don't assume them, all sort of statements are ambiguous.

This is what my father used to say to me; "anyone can get rich (move out of the ghetto, get elected president, etc), but everyone can't."
6.24.2004 6:01pm
Donald A. Coffin (mail):
Similar constructions hsow up in other contexts. My favorite was an newspaper ad for a chain of shoe stores which said, in small print at the bottom, "All sizes not available in all stores." I wrote them a letter asking where any of the sizes were available, and got no response.
6.24.2004 7:30pm
arbitrary aardvark (mail):
What i'm hearing, if i remember right, is that you are both a literalist and a libertarian. I could make some guesses about your meyer-briggs score, what the advocates for self-government call a 'green card.' i suspect that your teacher, a government agent, did not share the same world view. How did she -feel- about the size of the bus? What behavioral outcomes could be predicted by her verbal cues? How was the bus size issue resolved? If, as libertarian literalists, we are going to conquer the world, or at least find our place in it, we need to learn a bit about how the other team plays. -arbitray aardvark.
[will sees volokhian comments as harbingers of doom.]
6.24.2004 7:48pm
Maciej Stachowiak (www):
When I hear, "I can't talk to everyone" I only get the meaning "It is not the case that I can talk to everyone", not "I can't talk to anyone". I haven't heard "everyone" used to mean "anyone" in an object that way. Try replacing "can't" with "am unable to" and it seems even more clear: "I am unable to talk to everyone" does not mean "I am unable to talk to anyone".

I interpretet the bus example the same way as you though: "Not everyone can fit on the bus" is the right way to say it, because "Everyone can't fit on the bus" seems to imply that no one can fit on the bus. Again, substituting "is unable to" makes it sound even more this way.

My interpretation of this is that "not" applies to the predicate and not the subject. Therefore it is possible for a consistent grammar to generate (2) and (6) but not (3) and (5).
6.24.2004 10:48pm
Robert M Dahl:

The problem is not in variant meanings of “can” or “not”, nor in illogic. The problem lies in your understanding of the negation of the word “everyone”.

Let’s start without negation by saying “everyone fits on the bus,” which is clear and means each and every member of the group fits on the bus. When we use the negation, which is “everyone can’t fit on the bus” or “not everyone can fit on the bus”, we mean that “some members fit, but not all”, but we cannot mean “no one of the group’s members fits on the bus” because “no one” is not the negation of “everyone”, although “no one” does exclude “everyone”.

Let me repeat that: “no one” and “everyone” are mutually exclusive (we all know “no one” can never be “everyone”), but “no one” is not the negation of “everyone”. The negation of “everyone” is “not everyone” in the sense of “some members but not every member of the group.”

The longer explanation: Your basic premise is wrong. You said the negation of “everyone” is “not a single one”, when actually it never means “not a single one,” at least not in grammatic English. The correct negation of “everyone” is “not everyone” in the sense of “some but not all”. The phrase “not a single one” is synonymous with “no one”, and both are the negation of “one”. In other words, you are assuming the negation of “everyone” is synonymous with the negation of “one”, which implies “everyone” and “one” are synonymous, which they are not. Therefore, their negations are not the same.

Another vector that could lead to misunderstanding “everyone” is to assume that “everyone” is a synonym for “all” (when “all” is used as the noun contraction in the sense of “all members of the group”). When you negate a plural, such as “all”, you get an ambiguous meaning. The negation of “all” is “not all”, which means not the group as a whole, but doesn’t tell you whether the negation is also true for subsets of the group or for any single member of the group. That ambiguity arises because a plural by itself means two or more, but the exact size is ambiguous, unless specified. For example, the negation of “the horses run” can be either “some of the horses don’t run” or “none of the horses run”. (Be careful not to confuse a plural word standing for a group with a plural word meaning an generic type. The example “horses don’t have wings” has only the one meaning of “no horse has wings” because the word “horses” here means a generic horse and is not used in the plural sense of “a group of horses”). If “everyone” were synonymous with “all”, it might justify carrying the ambiguity inherent in the negation of “all” over to the negation of “everyone” and argue that the negation of “everyone” contains the possibility of “no one”. But to conflate “everyone” with “all” is to ignore the vital difference that “everyone” is singular and “all” is plural.

Let’s look at “everyone” and “all” to understand the differences between them.

- “Everyone” is a compound word built on the root, “one”. It retains the singular form of “one” and adds the plural concept of “every” to it. “Everyone” is all the “one”s that comprise the group. It focuses on the separate, individual “one”s within the group, while retaining the concept that there is a group involved. It is singular because it connotes each “one” member as a distinct individual. It means “a multiplicity of ones.” Here is an illustration of the singularity of “everyone”: “everyone [every member] is stupid.”

- “All” is the noun contraction of “all members of the group”. The focus of “all” is on the collective nature of the group, on the members united together. It is plural because it connotes multiple members joined into a cohesive group. That is the meaning of the plural. Note that the singular is used for one thing acting alone (“horse runs away”) while the plural is used for many things acting together (horses run away”). Here is an illustration of the plurality of “all”: “all [members] are smart.”

To summarize:
1. The negation of “everyone” is “some but not all”, and it is not “not a single one”.
2. In English you say “no one” when you negate “one”.
3. Since “one” and “everyone” have different meanings, you should expect the negation of “everyone” to be different from the negation of “one.”
4. The negation of a plural can mean either “some but not all” or it can mean “none”. But that ambiguity is not carried over into the word “everyone”, which is singular and therefore not subject to the number ambiguity that afflicts the negation of plurals.

In any language, words and grammar are what they are. You must accept that there is a consistent, internal consistency to it or you would not bother with grammar or syntax. When you think you see a misuse of the language, it is appropriate to look for an inherent consistency. But when that search brings you into a thicket of confusion, it is a strong sign that you have missed the correct explanation. In this case I think you misunderstood the word “everyone” and its negation. I have supported my view by showing how there is immediate consistency if you revise that understanding. My argument is based on assuming logic in our language, and does not rest on dictionary definitions or grammatic rules, which are.abstractions that arise after studying actual usage, and are not in themselves authoritative.

But here is the delicate point: what do we do when some speakers misuse words, use the wrong word, or use wrong grammar. Do we call a mistake a mistake? Or do we try to find a way to see mistakes as not mistakes and square that circle? English is a complicated language. It has an immense vocabulary and can differentiate shades of meaning through subtle shifts in syntax. I love this language, but its versatility rests on a common appreciation for appropriate use of its elements. I think it is an error to accept wrong or illogical usage. And it is destructive to legitimize wrong or illogical usage. Yes, our language can shift and change, but it can also be misused and butchered. The problem is that it is easier to sense a misuse than to discern it.

6.25.2004 12:41am
Michael (mail):
I think that Robert Lutton has it right. The assumed final statement (or pre-statement, or mid-statement) are implied by the inflection of each word in the spoken statement. Try speaking both meanings to yourself. Thus the difficulty of Michael Williams' computers in understanding the intended meaning. This may also explain the difficulty of the posters here in ascertaining the correct form only from the text.
6.25.2004 1:44am