All About the Word 'All'

29 March, 2019

Today's Ask a Teacher is all about the word "all," thanks to a question from our reader Ibrahim O.

He asks:

Question: What is the proper use of is and are? If I say, "All is empty" or "All are empty," which one is correct?


Hello, Ibrahim!

It sounds like you want to know whether "all" goes with the singular or plural form of the verb be. I can help.

You are asking about the use of "all" as a pronoun – a word that replaces a noun. "All" is used in a few different ways.

Ask a Teacher
Ask a Teacher

The Cambridge Dictionary says the pronoun "all" can mean "every one (of), or the complete amount or number (of), or the whole (of)." It can also mean "the only thing."

Let's look at examples of each meaning.

Every one of

Let's say you are talking about a local football team.

Have you seen the Lions football players this season? All are in top form.

You're talking about every member of the team in this sentence, so you should use the plural form of be, "are."

The whole amount

Next, imagine your friend calls you and asks about your new job.

All is well at work these days.

This sentence means that everything at work is going well. You use the singular form of be, "is."

The only thing

Finally, let's look at how "all" can mean "the only thing," as in these examples:

All I know is that the train is late. I don't know why.

All I want is to be alone.

Notice that, in these examples, the be verb is in the singular form, "is."

Look at the context

Our reader Ibrahim asked about these two sentences: "All is empty" and "All are empty."

The simple answer is this: "All are empty" can be correct, depending on the context. "All is empty" is not incorrect, but it is not very common. You might read it in literature or poetry.

Let's say I see you with a container of plastic water bottles. I might ask, "Can I have a bottle of water?" But the bottles are empty. You could answer,

All the bottles are empty.

In this example, you are thinking about every single bottle in the container.

In a story, you might read,

The town is quiet. No cars or people are on the street. All is empty.

In the above sentence, the writer is thinking of the town as a whole.

Here's a rule to remember:

If all refers to everything as one whole, then use "is."

If all refers to every person or thing in a group, then use "are."

I hope this helps you to use "all!"

And that's Ask a Teacher!

I'm Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins and Alice Walker wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

proper - adj. (grammar) exactly correct

singular - adj. (grammar) showing or indicating no more than one person or thing

plural - adj. (grammar) showing or indicating more than one person or thing

noun - n. a word that is the name of something (such as a person, animal, place, thing, quality, idea, or action) and is typically used in a sentence as subject or object of a verb or as object of a preposition

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Extra grammatical information:

All is an indefinite pronoun. An indefinite pronoun refers to a non-specific being, object or place. The indefinite pronouns in English include all, any, both, each, every, few, many, neither, nobody and none. Some use the singular form of a verb. Others use the plural form. And others use both, depending on the noun they refer to.