The alls construction

"Alls I want to do is have fun!"

(Putnam and van Koppen 2011)


The alls-construction refers to the appearance of -s on the word all in sentences like (1):

1) Alls Greg and Marsha want to do is kiss each other when no one else is around.
   (Putnam and van Koppen 2011)

This construction is sometimes spelled with an apostrophe before the -s. With this spelling, sentence (1) would be written as follows:

2) All's Greg and Marsha want to do is kiss each other when no one else is around.

Who says this?

Putnam and van Koppen (2009, 2011) describe the alls-construction as part of the dialects of Midwestern American English. The data they analyzed came from speakers from Southern/Southeastern Ohio and Kentucky. It has also been claimed to be found in the San Francisco Bay area (see this discussion on linguistlist.org).

Syntactic Properties

The following syntactic properties and examples illustrating them are all due to Putnam and van Koppen (2009, 2011).

Not just a variant of all

The -s suffix characteristic of the alls-construction has a restricted distribution, and cannot always appear on all. For example, the -s would not occur in examples like (3) and (4):

3) *alls the children

4) *alls or nothing

The other syntactic properties that follow provide further examples of how alls is not simply "another word for all" in the dialects where it is attested.

Inversion is impossible

Sentences with all, such as (5a), can be inverted, as in (5b):

5) a. All Alice brought to the party was bread.

b. Bread was all Alice brought to the party.

However, inversion is impossible with the alls-construction. For example, when (6a) is inverted, the resulting sentence, (6b), is not acceptable:

6) a. Alls Alice brought to the party was bread.

b. *Bread was alls Alice brought to the party.

No (free) relatives

The -s cannot appear on all in ordinary (or free) relative clauses. This is shown by the contrast between (7) (which shows how all can precede a relative clause) and (8) (which shows how alls cannot precede a relative clause):

7) He gave me all (that) I want to have.

8) *He gave me alls I want to have.

No second person subjects

According to Putnam and van Koppen (2009, 2011), many speakers do not allow the alls-construction with second person subjects. For example, while (9a), (9c), (9d), and (9e) are all acceptable and have first or third person subjects, (9b), which has a second person subject, is reported to be unacceptable to speakers on both the singular and plural readings of you:

9) a. Alls I want to do is sing a song.

    b. *Alls you want to do is sing a song.

    c. Alls he wants to do is sing a song.

    d. Alls we want to do is sing a song.

    e. Alls they want to do is sing a song.

However, Putnam and van Koppen (2011) do note that while the speakers they worked with rejected sentences with you, this does not hold of all speakers of the alls-construction. Attested examples with you are possible to find, and some speakers apparently accept such examples. This variation remains to be understood.

Related Phenomena

There were some discussions on linguistlist.org in the early 1990s speculating about the possible origins of the -s in the alls-construction. Steve Helmreich and Ron Smyth discussed the possibility that the -s is a reduced form of is, while several others (Mike Carter, Scott DeLancey, Lee Rudolph, John Phillips, and Brian Teaman) talked about the possibility that it is a reduced form of as, pointing out that in some dialects in England, it is possible to say All as I know.... Another contributor, Ellen Contini-Morava, discussed the possibility that it was related to the German word alles. Judy Delin suggested that it might be related to the following American English construction in (10), "which doesn't occur as far as [she] know[s] in British English":

10) You just need to do it, is all.

Still others (Monica Macaulay and Paul Chapin ) pointed out additional potentially related cases where an -s suffix appears in spoken English, such as Hows about we leave soon? or That's a long ways away from here.

Page contributed by Jim Wood on June 11, 2013.

Page updated by Tom McCoy on August 5, 2015.

References

Linguistlist.org contributions:

Putnam, Michael T. and van Koppen, Marjo. 2009. C-agreement or something close to it: the alls-construction. In Artemis Alexiadou, Jorge Hankamer, Thomas McFadden, Justin Nuger and Florian Schäfer (eds.) Advances in Comparative Germanic Syntax, 41-58. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Putnam, Michael T. and van Koppen, Marjo. 2011. All there is to know about the alls-construction. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 14, 81-109.

Further reading

Hall, Joan H. (ed.), Dictionary of American Regional English. Entry for all's. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Available here.

Zimmer, Ben. 2010. 'All's I Know...' "On Language" column, New York Times Magazine, Sept. 9, 2010. Available here.