‘All but’ vs. ‘anything but’ vs. ‘everything but’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

These three expressions, “all but”, “anything but”, and “everything but”, are among the most confusing in the English language for native speakers of other languages. Although “all”, “everything” and “anything” are all similar in meaning, when they are followed by “but”, they can mean completely different things!

One of the meanings of the word “but” is “except”, and you can find all three expressions used in their literal meanings (i.e. “all except”, “anything except” and “everything except”), e.g.

Were all your friends there? Yes, all but Joey.
What would you like to eat? I want anything but the chocolate cake.
Would you like me to gift-wrap everything? Everything but the candles, please.

However, more often than not, you will see these three expressions used idiomatically:

All but

“All but” means “almost”, “nearly” (which does not make much sense, I must admit, but that’s just the way it is). For example:

He was all but lost in the city.
It was all but impossible.

could be expressed without using “all but” as

He was almost lost in the city.
It was nearly impossible.

Anything but

“Anything but” can be rephrased using “not at all” or “in no way”. For example:

They were anything but positive about the proposition.
This smartphone is anything but ordinary.

which means the same as

They were not at all positive about the proposition.
This smartphone is in no way ordinary.

Everything but

The meaning of “everything but” is quite literal; it means “everything except”, “everything with the exception of”. For example:

I eat everything but meat.
She wants everything but happiness for other people.

which means

I eat everything except meat.
She wants everything with the exception of happiness for other people.

Nonetheless, the meaning is not completely literal. When you eat “everything but meat”, it doesn’t mean that you eat every single food imaginable. It means that you feel strongly about not eating meat.

This article was based on my guide to the most common mistakes in English, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?

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