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What You Must Know About “All Told” and “All Tolled”

I paused over the expression all told in a piece of business writing the other day. Because I had not seen the phrase in a long time, I decided to make sure it was correct. Sometimes expressions we think are correct are not. You can read my posts “Disburse Vs. Disperse–Wrong!” and “Do You Write With Flare?” for examples of words to reconsider.

Here is what you need to know about all told and all tolled: Only all told is correct.

all told or all tolled

To support that statement, I have four excellent resources piled on my desk at this moment. They are Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, The American Heritage College Dictionary, and Garner’s Modern American Usage–all the latest editions.

The American Heritage College Dictionary defines the expression as “with everything considered; in all.” Garner explains its use this way: “One archaic meaning of tell is ‘to count.’ Hence the idiom is all told.”

You might use the expression this way:

  • His investment, all told, was close to a million dollars.
  • All told, she paid over $7,000 in penalties.
  • The explosion resulted in 12 casualties, all told.
  • All told, Kristi sent out nearly 500 resumes.

Since the expression is not well known, you might be wise to avoid it. But if you do see all told in someone else’s business writing, remember this blog post before you replace it with “all totaled,” grab your red pen, or frown in disappointment.

Which words have fooled–or almost fooled–you?

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

9 comments on “What You Must Know About “All Told” and “All Tolled””

  • You are right about the need to check expressions we think are correct. I once caught a colleague saying that something had “passed mustard.” I gently explained that he meant “passed muster.” His problem stemmed from not knowing the meaning of “muster” – a formal military inspection. I had fun with that one.

  • I like this explanation — I frequently find myself using expressions without being 100% sure if I’m using them correctly. I recently mixed up “X situation doesn’t pass muster” with “X situation doesn’t pass mustard.” Fortunately, a kindly reader corrected me so I didn’t end up with too much egg on my face – or mustard, either!

  • The hilarity with which I greet tales of such word mix-ups is equaled by my crawling discomfort over the memories of my own mistakes. My Achilles knees (that was intentional) are “etymology” and “entomology.” And I once wrote a news feature that slipped past my editor with the word “conspirationally” in it. A clear-eyed friend caught that one, to my everlasting embarrassment.

    Just underscores the need for a friendly editor or proofreader.

  • A colleague recently used the expression “it didn’t cut the mustard” and I thought surely this was a version of misstating “couldn’t pass muster”. Nope. Turns out “cut the mustard” is a legitimate expression, albeit a bizarre one.


  • Thanks for this — just the info I needed. As a medievalist, I’m familiar with the usage of “tell” to mean count or tally, but part of me still wanted to write “all tolled.”

    Idiomatic expressions that we hear more than we see written can get tricky. Yet I’m still amazed at the degree to which “flaunt” has come to be interchangeable with (its opposite) “flaut”, or that so many published authors and professional speakers use “spitting image” when it should be “spit and image.”

  • Hi, Frank. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Given your mention of “spit and image,” I decided to look further. “Garner’s Modern American Usage” goes into detail about the phrase. Garner says that “spitting image” is 50 times more common in print than “spit and image.” For that reason, “spitting image” has become standard.

    So don’t be amazed, Frank! “Spitting image” is now correct.


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