(The Jungle Book, movie adaptation)
All the + comparative is a phenomenon that consists of the words all the followed by a comparative. (A comparative is an adjective or adverb modified by the word more or the suffix -er). The following sentence shows an example of this phenomenon:
1) Our car broke down, and Croton was all the further we got.
In sentence (1), all the further essentially means "the farthest" or "as far as." Therefore, this sentence could be paraphrased with sentence (2a) or (2b):
2) a. Our car broke down, and Croton was the farthest we got.
b. Our car broke down, and Croton was as far as we got.
Although most discussion of all the + comparative talks about its usage with farther/further as the comparative, other adjectives or adverbs are also possible, as shown in the following sentences:
3) Is that all the riper your peaches are?
4) This is all the tighter I can tie it.5) That’s all the higher he can jump.
6) That’s all the more comfortable it ever gets in here.
7) I tried all the harder I could.
Who says this?
All the + comparative is most widely recognized as a feature of dialects in the Midwest and Pennsylvania (Thomas 1993, Murray and Simon 2006, Ashcom 1953, Metcalf 2000, DARE), though it has been observed in other varieties of English such as in the Ozarks (Randolph 1927) and in the Carolinas and Georgia (LAMSAS; see Kretzschmar 1993). Thomas (1993) notes that it was once used in many dialects in both the South and the North in areas with heavy Scotch-Irish influence, but nowadays it mostly remains only as a characteristic of Midwestern and Pennsylvanian speech varieties. Notably, it is generally absent from the dialects of New England, and (despite occurring in the rest of the Midwest) it also is absent from central and southern Illinois (Thomas 1993).
Bryant (1962) notes that educated speakers prefer as far as over all the farther, which suggests that there might be some stigma associated with all the + comparative. Beyond this observation, little is known about the sociolinguistic factors affecting this construction.
All of the following observations about the syntactic properties of all the + comparative are from Thomas (1993).
Cannot occur directly before its noun
Although all the + comparative is semantically similar to a superlative, their distributions differ in several ways. One key difference is that superlatives can precede nouns as in (8):
8) That’s the tallest building I’ve seen.
However, all the + comparative cannot precede a noun. Thus, (8) becomes unacceptable when the superlative tallest is replaced with its counterpart all the taller as in (9):
9) *That’s all the taller building I’ve seen.
Instead, instances of all the + comparative with an adjective must occur in predicate position after some form of the verb be.
Cannot be modified by adverbs
Another difference between superlatives and all the + comparative is that superlatives can be modified by certain adverbs whereas the comparative in all the + comparative cannot. For example, (10a) is acceptable while (10b) is not:
10) a. That’s the very prettiest she can be.
b. *That’s all the very prettier she can be.
Occurrence with than clauses
The one way in which all the + comparative has a less restricted distribution than superlatives is that all the + comparative (like standard comparatives) can occur with a than clause as in (11):
11) That’s all the bigger than an apple they get.
However, (12), which is the superlative-based counterpart of (11), is unacceptable:
12) *That’s the biggest than an apple they get.
Cooccurrence with more
Thomas (1993) notes that, in his idiolect, the comparative in an instance of all the + comparative cannot be more (as the comparative form of much). Thus, the following is unacceptable for him:
13) *That was all the more we could do.
By contrast, this sentence is acceptable with the analogous superlative most or the equative as much as:
14) a. That was the most we could do.
b. That was as much as we could do.
Preference for -er
Thomas (1993) presents data from a survey of sixth-grade students in central Ohio in which the students were presented with the following three sentences:
15) The road was blocked, and Croton was all the further we could go.
16) A pound is all the bigger they get.
17) That’s all the more comfortable it gets in here.
For sentences (15) and (16), roughly 24% of students said that the sentence was something they might say, whereas only 13% of students gave that response for sentence (17). Therefore, it appears that this phenomenon occurs more commonly with comparatives formed with -er than comparatives formed with more.
All the + noun
Standard English allows the all the + noun construction, in which all the is followed by a mass noun, as in (18):
18) It’s all the evidence we need.
Some dialects allow this construction to be used with a singular form of a count noun in which all the has the meaning "the only." Thus, sentence (19a) from Thomas (1993) has the same meaning as (19b) in varieties of English that accept this usage:
19) a. That’s all the daughter he’s got.
b. That’s the only daughter he’s got.
All the + positive (simple) adjective
All the + positive consists of all the followed by a positive (simple) adjective or adverb, and like all the + comparative it gives a superlative meaning to the adjective or adverb. Thus, all three of the following would be roughly synonymous:
20) a. That’s all the far we went.
b. That’s all the farther we went.
c. That’s the farthest we went.
Whereas all the + comparative is used almost exclusively by speakers in the northern U.S., the related phenomenon all the + positive is largely confined to the American South, although it is not as common in the South as all the + comparative is in the North (Thomas 1993). In addition, all the + positive occurs in Ulster English (Crozier 1984).
All the + comparative in different contexts
Sequences of all the followed by a comparative may occur in standard English in certain contexts, as in the following sentences from the Internet:
21) Having the before picture taken makes this diet seem all the more real.
22) Coming home for summer makes me all the more thankful I got out of this place when I did.
23) Working retail has made me hate the human race all the more.
24) …it’s making it all the harder to move on.
Although these sequences appear similar to instances of all the + comparative, they differ semantically because, whereas all the + comparative gives the adjective or adverb a superlative meaning, in examples like the ones above all the has roughly the same meaning as emphatic “even,” so that a phrase like all the harder is similar in meaning to even harder.
Crozier (1984) argues that all the + comparative originated from all the + positive (which in turn originated as an extension of all the + noun). Under this analysis, Scotch-Irish immigrants brought all the + positive to the U.S., and then it developed into all the + comparative for many American speakers, meaning that all the + positive originated in Ireland but that all the + comparative originated in the U.S. This is supported by the fact that all the + positive is currently a feature of some dialects of Irish English, but all the + comparative is unattested in Ireland.
The following map shows results from a recent nationwide survey. It represents speakers' judgments of a sentence containing the phrase all the faster. Speakers were asked to rate the sentence on a scale from 1 (completely unacceptable) to 5 (completely acceptable). On the map, green dots indicate scores of 4 and 5 (meaning that the speaker in question found the sentence at least somewhat acceptable), while black dots represent scores of 1 and 2 (meaning that the speaker in question did not find the sentence very acceptable). Neutral scores of 3 are not included in this map.
Page contributed by Tom McCoy on August 20, 2016.
Ashcom, B.B. 1953. Notes on the language of the Bedford, Pennsylvania, subarea. American Speech 28.4: 241-255.
Bryant, Margaret M., ed. 1962. Current American Usage. New York: Funk.
Cassidy, Frederic G., and Joan Houston Hall, eds. 1991. "all the farther." Dictionary of American Regional English. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Available here.
Crozier, Alan. 1984. The Scotch-Irish influence on American English. American Speech 59.4:310-331.
Kretzschmar, William A. 1993. Handbook of the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Metcalf, Allan A. 2000. How we talk: American regional English today. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Murray, Thomas E., and Beth Lee Simon. 2006. What is dialect? Revisiting the Midland. Language variation and change in the American Midland: A new look at “heartland” English: 1-30.
Randolph, Vance. 1927. The grammar of the Ozark dialect. American Speech 3.1: 1-11.
Thomas, Erik R. 1993. The Use of the all the + comparative structure.
“Heartland” English: Variation and Transition in the American Midwest. Ed. Timothy C. Frazer. University of Alabama Press:257-65.