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Telling all

The other day on Twitter @GrammarMonkeys advised: “The phrase is ‘All told,’ unless you're talking about bells - then it's OK to say ‘All tolled.’"

Such a confusion arises, as with the frequent rein/reign mistake, because of a long-past shift in a traditional meaning.

When I quote to my students H.L. Mencken’s view that no one should be accountable for mistakes in his own work, that someone should be told off to identify and correct slips, they hear told off in the sense of “scolding.”

But told off in that context means merely to count off or assign someone — you know, as when the emissary from corporate comes to your workplace and orders everyone to line up in the company parking lot and count off by fours.

The verb tell, from the Old English tellan, means “count.” That is why the employee behind the bank window is a teller, someone who counts the money. So all told, an expression you’re unlikely to hear from anyone younger than fifty, means “all counted” or “in total.”

Mistaking all told for all tolled is a tell — an action betraying ignorance about a particular aspect of the language.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:01 AM | | Comments (5)


A few weeks back I came across the phrase all total in a piece I was editing. That was a new one.

And I have to admit that I'm unfamiliar with the use of told off to mean "counted off."

I love reading your blog because it reminds me of all the mistakes I have been making all along. The young reporters at the Sun probably fear you!


Just thought I'd pass along these comments from Steve Jobbs concerning blogging and editorial content.

A similar campanological confusion I have been encountering recently is 'wrung the changes'. I am almost driven to wring someone's neck.

In Dutch 'tellen' still means to count.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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