All Told

All told is written that way and not “all tolled.”

There’s a good chance you knew that already. I knew it for years, right up until I stumbled across some bad information on the subject, which led to a series of unfortunate events.

For years I knew the term as “all told.” Again, that’s correct. I considered “all told” a close cousin of “when all is said and done.” That’s not exactly right, but it’s a good way to think of it because it equates the telling in “told” with the saying in “said.” Both words refer to talking.

Then, some years ago, I came across a wrong bit of information. I read, I don’t remember where, that “all told” is wrong and that it should be “all tolled.”

I wrote a column about it before I realized it wasn’t true. A writer friend of mine who read the column repeated its incorrect message in a book. Only by sheer luck did we realize the error before the book went to press.

To get this right, remember that it’s about telling – when all has been told. But for a historical understanding of the term, well, that’s not exactly how it works.

“One archaic meaning of ‘tell’ is ‘to count,’” says Garner’s Modern American Usage. “Hence the idiom is ‘all told’ -- ‘All told there were 14 casualties’ -- which dates from the mid-19th century. Some people write ‘all tolled,’ perhaps because ‘toll’ can mean ‘to announce with a bell or other signal.’ But this is an error.

 

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