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In the sentence from Pride and Prejudice:

Not all that Mrs. Bennet, however, with the assistance of her five daughters, could ask on the subject, was sufficient to draw from her husband any satisfactory description of Mr. Bingley.

I feel like this sentence is partially negative by using "not all", which means some questions Mrs.Bennet asked were not sufficient to... while some others were. But actually I think it's more appropriate to rewrite it as:

All that Mrs. Bennet, however, with the assistance of her five daughters, could ask on the subject, was not sufficient to draw from her husband any satisfactory description of Mr. Bingley.

Or are these two structrues ("not all ... was" and "all ... was not") the same?

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    Don't forget that Pride and Prejudice was published 210 years ago, and styles of English have changed. I'm sure your interpretation is the correct one; sufficient must refer to the totality of Mrs Bennet's questions and not to selected ones. Jun 9, 2023 at 16:43
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    I think, that although both the original version and the suggested revision 'mean' the same thing, the original Jane Austen version starts with 'Not...' to emphasise the negative outcome of all that Mrs Bennett could ask. I could today happily write or say 'Not all my son's pleading and begging was sufficient to persuade me to lend him my car'. Jun 9, 2023 at 19:23
  • @MichaelHarvey Thanks. Do you think it’s just a means of emphasising and has nothing to do with “partially negative” meaning of “not all” in general speaking?
    – shepherd
    Jun 10, 2023 at 3:11
  • shepherd - I do think that. As @KateBunting says, what is being negated is the sufficiency of the totality of Mrs Bennet's questions to draw a description (etc). Jun 10, 2023 at 7:10

2 Answers 2

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In modern usage those two structures technically don't mean the same thing, or at least the way Austen wrote it could be ambiguous -- consider "not every room was clean" as opposed to "every room was not clean".

But in the context of the paragraph, Austen clearly meant "Everything that Mrs. Bennet [...] could ask on the subject was not sufficient". I can hardly imagine a writer today phrasing it that way (nor using that sentence structure), but that's probably just because the standards of usage have shifted in the last couple of centuries.

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Here's what I think. If you move the not as suggested, you will change the meaning.

Not all means "not everything"

All means "everything"

If we now paraphrase these, you should be able to see they both have very different meanings.

Not everything that Mrs Bennet . . . could ask . . . was sufficient . . .

Everything that Mrs Bennet . . . could ask . . . was not sufficient . . .

In the first, there is a possibility that some things were sufficent and some were not, but in the second, absolutely everything that Mrs Bennet could ask was not sufficient.

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    I don't think this is correct. In the book's context, "Not everything that Mrs Bennet could ask was sufficient to..." is certainly saying that she did all she could and it wasn't enough. "Everything she could ask was not sufficient" would have the same meaning. The only difference is that the original is written in more elliptical language than we like today. Jul 19, 2023 at 13:55
  • I couldn't disagree more.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jul 19, 2023 at 15:24
  • All that glitters is not gold
    – Au101
    Aug 19, 2023 at 1:29

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