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An excerpt from the movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953):

The guy who saw the monster is trying to convince a professor of paleontology that what he saw was real but the professor doesn't believe him.

— I don't know if this will be of any help, but you remember, doctor a few years ago, an expedition unearthed a herd of mastodons in the Siberian tundra. Dead thousands of years, yet their fur was still intact, the meat still edible.
— That's quite right, my dear Lee. But they weren't alive. That's the important difference. They weren't alive.
— I'm sorry, professor, but in all honesty, I can't support your story.
— I guess I'll go back to the hospital. Maybe I should ask for a transfer to the psychopathic ward.
— Nonsense. It's not as bad as all that, my boy.
— Thanks for listening, doctor.

I'm not sure how to properly understand the phrase all that. What does it refer back to?

  • What do you think it refers back to? (And if you are asking what 'all that' means, look it up in the dictionary! You may have to try more than one dictionary. But, gosh, you should make the best effort before asking a question.) – user6951 Dec 23 '14 at 9:17
  • @δοῦλος For some speakers the role of "all" may be intuitively clear, but that doesn't have to be the case for everyone, as it's not quite the same all as in "all the apples". – 355durch113 Jan 22 '15 at 23:00
  • The point is @Grantwalzer one can look up all that in the dictionary. But some users have a habit of asking for meanings of words/phrases without indicating any prior attempt to figure out the meaning. When you look up a word and still have trouble understanding the definition, or how it applies in a given sentence, then the requested format is that you indicate this in your question, including a link to the definition. – user6951 Jan 22 '15 at 23:33
  • @δοῦλος I know, I know... I'm just used to more tolerance regarding "previous research" (German SE). – 355durch113 Jan 23 '15 at 2:20
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"It's not as bad as all that"

This is a set phrase, an idiomatic formula of expression in which "all that" has no concrete meaning. "all that" just intensifies "not so bad". You might also say: Really, this is not so bad - or: This is really not so bad.

By the way, it is not so easy to find "not so/as adj as all that". I'm still trying to find it in Longman DCE. DCE has all determiner 1-17 and all adverb 1-18. In all adverb no.17 is "not all that" in similar uses but the use "not so/as adj as all that" is not registered there. I suppose it is in the entry "as".

I skimmed through two long entries of "as", found "not so aj/av as", but didn't find "not so/as adj as all that".

Of course, one could give "all that" some justification. One might say: It is not as bad as all that you have told me about the situation. All that is not so bad.

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Speaker A describes a bad situation.

Speaker B could respond with: "It's not as bad as that."

It is the situation. That is Speaker A's description of the situation.

If Speaker B says "all that" instead of "that", Speaker B is indicating that Speaker A's description is big, extensive, elaborate - and thus possibly an overreaction.

  • I am not a native speaker, but the "all" strikes me as a little more idiomatic than that. – 355durch113 Jan 22 '15 at 22:48
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The idiom "It's not as bad as all that" is used by one person to calm down or reduce the emotional over-reaction (hysterics, panic, crying) of another person to a bad situation by convincing them that their reaction is much larger than is reasonable due to the situation.

"It's" refers to the terrible situation the other person is reacting to.

"all that" refers to the emotional reaction of the other person.

"not as bad as" is a comparison between "It's" (the situation) and "all that" (the emotional reaction) that attempts to show that the reaction is larger than can be justified by the situation.

In your example, "Lee" disbelieves the professor's story, and in reaction the professor says he should check himself into a hospital as insane (transfer to psychopathic ward). This statement by the professor is probably an example of hyperbole used for humor. Lee then uses "It's not as bad as all that" to convince the professor that thinking he is insane is an overreaction to Lee's disbelief of his story. If the professor was using hyperbole, then either Lee missed the joke and is responding literally to the professor's statement, or else he is pretending to take the statement seriously as a way of extending the joke.

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