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.

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