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In the following two examples, the construction "want them to be all" is used to mean "want all of them to be":

(1) Statistics show that children who read proficiently by the third grade realize better academic outcomes. Literacy experts view third grade as a time when a child transitions from learning to read to reading to learn. "We want them to be all great readers and be the best they can be in their community," [Source]

(2) I admit that I remain a little finicky when it comes to surprises. I want them to be all birthday presents or letters from old friends. [Source]

Is this construction grammatical and natural? I'd like to know what native speakers think.

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    It sounds off to me; I would say "we want them all to be" instead. It is the kind of thing you might hear someone say occasionally, if they're building the sentence as they speak and the decision to emphasize with 'all' comes after the point where it should naturally have been inserted. In written text, however, it certainly looks like a plain old mistake.
    – Hellion
    Jul 26, 2016 at 16:10
  • This is called quantifier float(ing): all, both and each qualifying the subject may move to other points in a sentence. There's a description of the rules here Jul 26, 2016 at 16:39

2 Answers 2

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This construction does not sound natural to me. If I correctly understand the document that StoneyB referred to, it is not grammatically correct either.

...it cannot move over the infinitive, as shown in (31g).

(31)
...
g. *I want my friends to be all at the airport

Note that there is also an adverbal use of all, meaning completely. The rules for adverb placement are different, and it can occur after the to be infinitive, or indeed after any other verb. These examples demonstrate the difference:

They all seem to be upset - quantifier for they - all of them are upset
They seem to be all upset - adverb qualifying upset - they are completely upset

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The constructions are not grammatical, as the link provided by StoneyB points out. In both of them, the quantifier all floats over (or moves past) the infinitive to be.

However, "We want them to be all great readers" would be clearly understood by most readers, and is somewhat natural in American English, perhaps cognate with the idiomatic use of the quantifier all as an adverb in the compound phrase all like in colloquial speech, e.g.:

So I'm all like "he said whaaaa?"

There may be a hint of this idiomatic usage in the sentence "We want them to be all great readers and be the best they can be in their community." It's important to recognize that this source is quoted speech, while your second source is casual or "chatty" writing. In formal writing, and for clarity, you should strive to observe the quantifier float rules in the provided link.

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  • The verbs in your two example sentences are not infinitives: they are present simple (am) and past simple (was). The rule only applies to the infinitive (to be). Compare these two sentences: "they are all teachers" - OK and "they want to be all teachers" - not OK.
    – JavaLatte
    Jul 27, 2016 at 5:20
  • @JavaLatte Obviously, but my objective was to demonstrate how the use of all can be idiomatic, and how the usage in the OP's examples may be cognate with that idiom. Jul 27, 2016 at 5:37
  • The usages that you quoted are adverbal usages of all, meaning completely. The rules for placement of adverbs are different from those of quantifiers, and could legitimately be used after a to be infinitive, for example "He seemed to be all confused". See the adverb section of this definition: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/all
    – JavaLatte
    Jul 27, 2016 at 7:28
  • Again: obviously. Again: I was not proposing some sort of equivalency between the contructions and usages. I was suggesting that the idiomatic usages of all may have influenced the author of We want them to be all great readers in forming that sentence; thus "cognate with." Jul 27, 2016 at 7:38

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