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When Do We Use "All of the," "All the," or "All"?

September 11, 2012

Which is correct: all of the people, all the people, or all people? Give your students this simple explanation.

Not only do students have to contend with the articles a, an, and the, but they also have to learn to use many other quantifiers. Words like all, some, and none seem simple enough to learn, but when students have to use them with the, confusion abounds. Hopefully, if you follow the steps below, you will be able to clearly convey the three different quantifier sentence patterns to your students.

Step #1

First, explain the terms “specific” and “general”.

In English, a specific noun is one that you can see, that there’s only one of, or that you’ve already mentioned before.

  • Please pass me the pen that is in front of you.

A general noun is one that you can’t see or that there are many of.

  • I’m hungry. I wish I had a sandwich.

Step #2

Next, give the three main sentence patterns and explanations for quantifiers.

Note: Ns refers to a plural noun or a non‑count noun.)

all of the + Ns

Use this pattern when you want to talk about specific nouns.

  • All of the students in my class studied hard for the test. (plural count noun)

  • I used all of the paper in my notebook to write my essay. (non‑count noun)

all the + Ns

Explain to students that this pattern is the casual form of the “all of the + Ns” pattern, where “of” is simply dropped to shorten the phrase. Most textbooks don’t mention it, but shortening phrases is very common in English, especially spoken English, and should be taught to your students.

  • All the students in my class studied hard for the test. (plural count noun)
  • I used all the paper in my notebook to write my essay. (non‑count noun)

all + Ns

Use this pattern when you want to talk about general nouns.

  • All students (in the world) have to take exams. (plural count noun)
  • Not all water (in the world) is drinkable. (non‑count noun)

Step #3

Finally, you can mention that these three patterns also apply to other quantifiers in English.

Alternatively, you could repeat these rules using different quantifiers on other days, as a review. I find it helps to give students approximate percentages of amounts, to help them understand the meaning of each quantifier.

  • 100% = All
  • 95% = Almost All
  • 80% = Many (count nouns), Much (non‑count nouns)
  • 50% = Some
  • 20% = A Few (count nouns), A Little (non#8209;count nouns)
  • 5% = Almost None
  • 0% = None

Note: Make sure you point out that “almost all” isn’t possible without the “all”. I often hear students mistakenly saying, “Almost people” or “Almost of the people”. This is also a very common question in the grammar section of the TOEIC test.

I hope all students benefit from all (of) the info here! :)


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Comments (5)

Laura Meyerovich(Guest)

Tanya, how this approach to 'all of the' vs 'all the' relates to CMS 15 suggestion to use 'all of' only when it precedes nonposessive pronouns or posessive nouns? By the CMS rule, 'All of us' and 'All of Tanya's students' are fine, but 'all the paper in my notebook' and 'all the students in Tanya's class'


Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Laura,

You bring up a good point! (And I love that you refer to the Chicago Manual of Style, my fave reference book!) I forgot to mention that there are other ways besides 'the' to refer to a specific noun. Besides 'the', you can use a possessive noun (as in your example of 'Tanya's') or a possessive adjective (such as 'my'). In my mind, the rule is the same. 'All of my students' has a similar function as 'all of the students'. Using 'of' is the longer, more formal pattern. To make it more casual, we would say 'all my students' or 'all the students'.

I'd never thought of it in terms of CMS's suggestion. Obviously, with the pronoun, we must use 'of' because 'all us' would never be correct. But, in my opinion, I think it's fine to say 'all of Tanya's students' OR 'all Tanya's students' (the latter being more casual). However, people far smarter than me work for CMS, and I think you probably can't go wrong sticking to their suggestions! :)

Laura Meyerovich(Guest)

Agree about CMS

Reply to Comment

Gloria (Guest)

What's the difference between ( all my students versus my students all)

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Gloria,

Those two constructions have the same meaning. You are just putting the emphasis on different parts of the sentence.
- All my students passed the test. (emphasis on the subject, 'students')
- My students all passed the test. (emphasis on the verb, 'passed')

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