“So far, 686 people have been tested in the U.K., with all but three negative”

In this article, the use of the phrase ‘all but three tested negative’ doesn’t make sense to me. In my head it should be ‘all but 3 tested positive’, since only 3 people in the U.K. have tested positive for the virus. I have spoken to others and some insist it should be positive, the others say the writing in the article is correct.

Could someone please explain the logic behind this phrase and whether or not it’s correct in this?

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    All tested negative except for three. All tested negative but three. All but three tested negative. – Hot Licks Feb 9 at 22:29
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    In this context "but" means "except". – WS2 Feb 9 at 23:23
  • For what it is worth, If I were justifying this sentence, it would on the grounds of an ellipse of the noun ‘tests’ (left to be understood. My own analysis seems to be in a minority of one, though I stand by it. – Tuffy Feb 11 at 0:29

It is correct as written. All the tests came back with negative results showing that there was no infection, save for three alone which came back positive indicating that there was an infection in those three.

A positive virus-testing result means that the virus was detected.

A negative virus-testing result means that the test for the virus failed to find it.

Six hundred and eighty-three people had negative test results; three had positive test results. So all but three of the six hundred and eighty-six were negative.

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You are right. It is easy to understand what is meant, but it is not quite correctly expressed. As Hot Licks says, we can easily understand that it must mean:-

... all three (tested) negative.

A literalist might say that this apparently means that all but three of the people tested were negative, which is not quite right. To understand the sentence in the way obviously intended, however, we have to start with a passive:-

...686 people have been tested,...

and then mentally wrench the verb tested round into the active. This is surely at best clumsy. We are, moreover, in doing so, using a special locution for cases where, if people were-tested-and-their-tests-came-out negative, we can shorten the whole thing down to tested negative. It is not hard to find an alternative that avoids this.

So far, 686 people have been tested, with negative results for all but three.

If we understand the original sentence, does it matter? I think it does, but, based on teh pre-eminence of usage, perhaps it does not. That is an argument for another question.

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    The original version is completely idiomatic, in US English. – Hot Licks Feb 10 at 0:34
  • Yes indeed, as I acknowledge. – Tuffy Feb 10 at 0:36
  • Then why did you say "not quite correctly expressed"? – Hot Licks Feb 10 at 0:38
  • @HotLicks obviously I did not make myself clear enough. The issue is not whether there is a standard use of ‘test negative’, active in form but passive in meaning. It is the switch between the (states) passive and (left to be understood) active that follows which seems to me to take licence a little too far. But, as I say, that is another debate. – Tuffy Feb 10 at 0:47
  • That's clearly not the source of OP's confusion and your first quoted interpretation is flatly contradictory. – the-baby-is-you Mar 1 at 18:45

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