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I found a sentence: "The children had smeared peanut butter all over the sofa.".

Does "all" in the sentence mean all the sofa or all the butter?

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  • It means all the sofa. More like all over the surface of the sofa, and perhaps it sides also. Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:08

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It's referring to the sofa. 'All over' is often used as a set phrase. One common meaning is 'covering a large amount of the surface area of something'. It's a somewhat hyperbolic phrase, since it does not literally mean 'all'. For example:

There are crumbs all over the floor. (=there are a lot of crumbs on the floor)

There is graffiti all over the wall. (=there is graffiti covering large parts of the wall)

People all over the world are in lockdown. (=people in many parts of the world are in lockdown)

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  • It could just be a small part of the sofa, but that would seem significant to a houseproud person, and justify saying "all over the sofa". Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:57
  • @Michael Harvey Maybe, but I would say that is less to do with language and more to do psychology. A standard interpretation of 'all over' would typically be more than a small degree of something.
    – kandyman
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 20:59
  • My mother would say "We're being talked about all over the town" because one neighbour said something about her to another. Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 21:37
  • Of course there are ironic uses (as with any phrase), but are you suggesting that “all over” means something like “a lot but concentrated in a small area”?
    – kandyman
    Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 21:41
  • I am suggesting that "all over" can be a pretty flexible concept, especially with peanut butter on a nice and expensive sofa. Commented Sep 29, 2020 at 21:48

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