What does the idiom "all but" mean?

Are you using the idiom all but but not sure about its meaning? Using idioms, which are important elements of spoken and written language, in the right place strengthens your language skills. Examine the meaning of the all but idiom and the situations in which it is used.

Meaning of "all but"


The idiom “all but” generally means “almost,” “close to,” or “simply lacking.” It is often used to emphasize how close something is to completion, or how nearly something was achieved, yet it was not fully realized. Therefore, something can be “all but done” or “all but certain.” It is also used to describe something that is almost complete, almost one hundred percent certain, or something that is almost, but not quite, happening.


The origin of “all but” is not precisely known. It has been used in English since the 10th century and is probably derived from Old English, where “but” meant “outside.” By the 12th century, “all but” had come to mean “close to” or “almost,” and is still used in this way today.


The idiom “all but” is used in both written and spoken English. It is used in informal contexts and is typically found in everyday conversations. It is, however, considered to be more formal than any of its synonyms such as “almost,” “nearly,” or “close to.” As such, it is often used in more formal contexts such as business meetings, professional emails, and reports.

Example Sentences

  • The project is all but finished.
  • I'm all but certain that it will rain tomorrow.
  • The shipment is all but ready to go.
  • We've all but given up on finding a solution.

The meanings of the words in the "all but" idiom

Beyond the Literal: Figurative Language in Idioms

Idioms often use figurative language to convey a message that is not meant to be taken literally. For instance, the idiom "bite the bullet" means to endure a painful or difficult situation without complaint, while "hold your horses" means to be patient and wait. Other idioms, like "kick the bucket" or "pop your clogs," use euphemisms to talk about death.


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