Friday, 4 June 2010

American grammar is just plain wrong

Time for a wee rant. This'll only take a few seconds, I promise. 

It really bugs me when I read or hear something like:

"Everyone can't be an astronaut." 

...when the intended meaning is actually...

"Not everyone can be an astronaut." 

Think about it. If everyone can't be an astronaut, no-one can be an astronaut, right? 

So why do Americans (and I've only noticed this in American writing and speech) use language in this weird way? 

And ... do all Americans do this, or just some? 

If it's just some, I could then say: "Not all Americans misuse grammar this way." NOT "All Americans don't misuse grammar this way".

End of rant. As you were.

Posted via email from Simon's posterous


ken said...

Hi Simon. How about "everyone can't fit on the boat" or "not everyone can fit on the boat"? The latter suggests that not one of the group can fit on the boat (which doesn't make sense) whereas the former captures the intended meaning - the whole group can't fit, even though some individuals within the group can. "Everyone can't be an astronaut" works the same way. The whole group can't be astronauts even though some individuals can. Your dislike of the construction is valid (we're all entitled to our preferences), but calling it non-grammatical doesn't stack up.

ken said...

Let me rephrase part of my response. The latter suggests that there are some individuals who can't fit on the boat - which doesn't make sense.

Simon said...

Hi Ken,

This is very interesting! To my mind, saying "not everyone" means just that, not everyone (not the same as "no-one").

I think the boat example is different from the astronaut example, because in the specific example of a boat, we want everyone to be on board. But we don't necessarily want everyone to be an astronaut.

David said...


I disagree with you. To say "everyone can't fit on the boat" implies that the group comprising everyone cannot fit on the boat (maybe because that would cause the boat to capsize). Whereas, to say "not everyone can fit on the boat" entails the former (i.e. the boat cannot fit every member of the group comprising everyone), while at minimum leaving open the possibility (if not usually implying) that some members of the group can fit in the boat (while others perhaps watch them from the shore). To convey that no member of the group comprising everyone can fit in the boat, acceptable phrasings (to my mind) would include: "not anyone can fit in the boat," "no-one can fit in the boat," or "nobody can fit in the boat." Such a boat would be practically worthless, but atleast your grammar with respect to that fact would be sterling.