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I found two dictionary definitions for this phrase:

  1. Everyone or everything except those mentioned. All but the weakest plants survived the hot weather.

  2. Almost. In some places, bus service has all but disappeared.

However, how can one figure out what is meant in the following examples?

Society is all but rude, to this delicious solitude.

Does that mean that Society is almost rude, or Society is anything except rude?

It is all but impossible.

Does that mean that It is almost impossible or It is anything except impossible?

He was all but dead when we found him.

Was he almost dead, or definitely not dead?

  • 1
    Referential – Mistu4u Sep 24 '13 at 18:23
  • The example "Society is all but rude" is from poetry of the mid 1600s. It shouldn't be used as an example of common patterns in modern English prose. – James K Nov 24 '16 at 21:01
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A quick-and-dirty rule would be to say that "all but [noun phrase]" carries the first meaning while "all but [adjective or verb] carries the second.

And you cannot apply it to an adjective that is modifying a noun unless you put hyphens between the parts--including the adjective, like in this example:
"I saw his all-but-perfect face on posters all over town."

Since "the weakest plants" is a noun phrase, "all but the weakest plants" means "excluding the weakest plants. Because "rude" is an adjective, "all but rude" means a slightly weaker degree of rudeness. Because "ran" is a verb, "he all but ran" means he walked very, very fast.

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    If we say:"He was all but a dead man when we found him" it will mean "He was quite alive", won't it? – user1425 Mar 10 '14 at 17:12
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Okay, here is how I interpret this structure. No particular rule, just use your common sense.

But has a meaning i.e. "Except" or "excluding".

Usage 1:

In your first example:

All but the weakest plants survived the hot weather.

Simply, replace "but" with except. Now it stands as:

All except the weakest plants survived the hot weather.

Usage 2

Now consider this excellent example, I saw somewhere.

He is all but (.....anything; take a few pennies for example...) broke.

What does it mean? Substituting except for but once again, it means Except (a few pennies), he lost everything. Observe that, it does not mean, he lost everything. He has still left some pennies with him. So it is better to say He almost lost everything.

So in a nutshell,

He is all but a few pennies broke.

=

He has lost everything except a few pennies.

=

He has almost lost everything.

Now in the same way, if we apply the second rule to your second example, it becomes:

In some places, bus service has all but disappeared

=

Bus service has disappeared in some places, except a few buses.

=

Almost every bus has disappeared except a few buses.

Now use these two logic accordingly in your different examples.

(Hint: "It is all but impossible. " and "He was all but dead when we found him." In both the cases the meaning is "almost". Try to solve how.)

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