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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. 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: In the three patterns below, Ns refers to either 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-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 (11)

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')

Evgeniy Shumilin(Guest)

Why not say 'all students in my class'? It sounds more natural and perfectly correct to me.

I have also found this example in The New York Times:
'All students in the program take the Web design course.'

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Evgeniy, that's a great question. All + plural noun without "the" is great for general nouns. In the New York Times example you mentioned, if they are referring to all students in general in a certain program, we don't know exactly which students they're referring to, so "all students" sounds natural. This would be common in an advertisement for the program, for example. However, for specific nouns, it sounds more natural to use the specific article "the." Your first example is quite specific because you used the possessive adjective "my." In that case, you know exactly which students are in your class, so "All the students in my class" sounds more natural.

Rick Qin(Guest)

Many thanks to you!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're very welcome, Rick!

Emmanuel T.(Member)

Please is right to say all days or all day

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Emmanuel, it depends on how many days you're referring to. For one day, it's very common to say "all day." For example: I studied all day because I have a test tomorrow.

For more than one day, it's common to use "all (of) the days." For example: The power was out at the hotel for all of the days of our vacation. OR The power was out at the hotel for all the days of our vacation. "All days" doesn't sound very natural, so I recommend avoiding that. Hope that helps!

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