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ZEPHYRA's avatar

What is so wrong about this?(Details inside)

Asked by ZEPHYRA (20992points) January 19th, 2011

In English grammar it is correct to say ” I will tell you all the truth.” It is taken as a mistake to say ” I will tell you the whole truth”. While I do see the grammatical correctness of the former, I honestly don’t consider the latter to be incorrect. Am I right? Is it such a big mistake?

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33 Answers

iamthemob's avatar

Where are you seeing this as incorrect? What source is that from…

Odysseus's avatar

” I will tell you all the truth.” does not seem grammatically correct to me, it means that you will tell a crowd of people the truth.
” I will tell you all OF the truth.” is better but ” I will tell you the whole truth” is still better.

gailcalled's avatar

It is redundant, just as “the true facts,” and the “legal law” are. The oath one takes in court has archaic language in it, just as many legal documents do.

I’ll tell you the truth, I promise.

gorgeousgal3's avatar

Both seem fine to use.

syz's avatar

@gailcalled So the argument is that there are no partial truths?

My own pet peeve is “close proximity”

ZEPHYRA's avatar

@iamthemob I was shown it in a grammar book!

the100thmonkey's avatar

I think the confusion here stems from the fucntion of “you all” – it is unclear whether the “all” is modifiying “you” or “the truth”.

I don’t see anything wrong with either utterance, to be honest; I don’t see why “the whole truth” is redundant – it is possible to give partial answers, after all.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@ZEPHYRAwhich grammar book?

An ISBN number will suffice: I’m intrigued, and would like to know more!

gailcalled's avatar

@syz: A partial truth is…what? I’m having difficulty thinking of an example. There are conditional truths, I guess.

It is true sometimes that I get mad at Milo.

submariner's avatar

”. . . the whole truth” is not grammatically wrong. I would argue that it is not semantically wrong, either.

One can easily mislead without saying anything false by omitting certain relevant facts. Hence the requirement that a witness tell the whole truth in court. Of course, the lawyers on both sides will do their best to suppress unfavorable evidence, which means that they will often try to prevent a witness from telling the whole truth, so the requirement seems a bit disingenuous.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

A grammar book used by Greek EFL students. ISBN= 9604094257. I told them that “whole” is not incorrect and was told that I don’t know my grammar!

iamthemob's avatar

I found this:

All the” and “the whole” with nouns are differentiated this way, according to L. G. Alexander*:

“We usually prefer the whole to all the with singular concrete nouns. The whole is not normally used with plurals and uncountables.”

The truth is an uncountable object. However, I don’t think that it’s a grammatical rule that many adhere to.

shunyata's avatar

it is my view:
All the truth seems to be incorrect because TRUTH is an abstract.
There are no definite articles to be put prior to / in front of abstracts.
for instance it is correct to say : all of eternity/ not all of the eternity.
But maybe I am incorrect.
as to ” the whole truth ”
well, philosohphically see TRUTH is truth….and neither whole nor not whole. When people see different FORM OF TRUTH, all they do is see TRUTH through their filters and conditioning, and not TRUTH in itself.

Jeruba's avatar

I certainly recognize partial truths: that is, uttering a statement that is free of falsehood, but omitting some portion of the account, so that the message is incomplete or misleading. For example: suppose I asked my husband, “Did you remember to mail the bills?” and he said “Yes, I remembered,” when the whole truth would be “Yes, I remembered, but I didn’t do it.”

This is different from speaking of something that is partially true. Something either is or is not true; “true” does not come in degrees.

But I see nothing wrong with the expression “I will tell you the whole truth” (meaning leaving nothing out), which I regard as idiomatic. Where do you see this cited as grammatically incorrect?

iamthemob's avatar

@Jeruba – See above. It’s grammatically incorrect in that “whole” qualifies singular nouns. As “truth” is technically an uncountable object, it’s technically incorrect to use whole with it.

Jeruba's avatar

Not all authorities agree, @iamthemob. I would like to see other commentary on this. The expression conveys clearly and simply an idea that is meaningful and comprehensible. Similarly, we might say “the whole country,” “the whole room” (“I painted the whole room by myself”), and, as an example of an abstraction, “the whole idea” (“The whole idea doesn’t make sense to me”).

If I were editing a document to standards of formal English and encountered the expression “the whole idea,” I would call for a change, but I would let “the whole truth” stand as long as it represented a meaningful distinction from “the truth” unqualified.

iamthemob's avatar

@Jeruba – Your examples, though, still deal with things that can be considered “countable objects,” even the abstraction.

You can have wholly separate “ideas” about something, but you needn’t refer to any other to make it “countable.” So a “whole idea” seems proper (as do all the other examples) – do you think it’s wrong?

Truth is an abstract idea that is or is not. When we talk about the “whole truth” there is no such other thing as a “whole other truth” or the statement really makes little sense. It is an essential. So “all the truth” would be technically the correct choice. I think you’re right that it’s a rule that isn’t really practiced, and therefore we may have transitioned to a point where idiomatic or colloquial usage is more the standard.

Jeruba's avatar

Well, it’s always relative, @iamthemob; it has a context. Nobody anywhere is going to tell THE whole capital-T Truth. I don’t believe anyone is capable of knowing it; but those who believe they are also believe it’s unutterable.

When we use this expression, then, we are talking about the whole truth about something: about the incident in question or about some matter of which we are presumed to have knowledge, whether or not we are on the witness stand. In this sense it is possible to conceive of the entirety of it and of something less than the entirety of it—and also of the fact that different witnesses or participants may in fact have different truths about the matter. You may argue that those are then not really truths, but they’re all we’ve got: our subjectively interpreted accounts of the evidence of our perceptions.

iamthemob's avatar

@Jeruba – In terms of meaning – no, in this case it isn’t relative. Whether or not it’s possible doesn’t really relate to what the phrase is claiming – that there is “truth.”

Claiming “I’m telling you the whole truth” is a statement that the thing that is being told is an absolute and objective truth – capital-T truth. I, as you, don’t think it’s possible…but it’s referencing an essential thing that cannot be compared to anything else – an uncountable. If this is the “whole truth” there is no such thing as another truth – it is a unique and essential thing which is not singular because it is all-encompassing but also not plural for the same reason.

So, whether there is a practically possible thing called “capital-T truth” (I don’t think we’ll find it if there is,” the claim of it in the statement “the whole truth” means that the truth is uncountable, and therefore it seems the rule is that you should not refer to it as the whole but rather “all the truth.”

gailcalled's avatar

How about this, my favorite opening sentence of a period novel? It probably is not a universally acknowledged truth, but who cares?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

the100thmonkey's avatar

@gailcalled – that’s one example. You’re right, though, in that this is not a question of rules, it is an empirical one.

> Do people use “whole” with truth?

> Do others understand them? without noticing an error or having any difficulty in processing the utterance?

It would seem they do.

gailcalled's avatar

@the100thmonkey: Ah, stop showing off and get back to the typewriters with your 99 buddies. We await the new Shakespearean drama.

morphail's avatar

@iamthemob where did you hear that “whole” should not be used with noncount nouns?

Jeruba's avatar

The expression “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” has a long and venerable history. American legal practice inherited this and much else from English law. Apparently English speakers for the past 800 to 1000 years haven’t been as well informed as @iamthemob.

iamthemob's avatar

@Jeruba – Well, did you see how they were spelling things back then? ;-)

But, @morphail – that’s what your teacher was talking about. I don’t think that anyone would really call you on it – except your teacher. Which is lame…because their making you focus on really trivial stuff.

morphail's avatar

@iamthemob my teacher? You’ve lost me.

However, I think you might be right in that we don’t normally use “whole” with noncount nouns:
*the whole water
*the whole sand
*the whole furniture

But, I don’t think you can uses this to argue that “the whole truth” is wrong, because truth can be a count noun. 1 truth, 2 truths.

iamthemob's avatar

(I done mistaken you for the OP.)

But again, see my post above. Something that is the complete truth has no counterpart – it already consists of all the truth. So, In the case where the modifier would be used, it precludes the possibility of multiple truths.

morphail's avatar

@iamthemob now you’re not talking about grammar anymore. There’s no question that “the whole truth” is grammatical… whether it make philosophical sense is another issue, I guess.

iamthemob's avatar

@morphail – technically it is still grammar. “Whole” as an adjective can only modify a noun that is a singular countable or a plural. As “truth” doesn’t technically qualify…there’s a syntax issue.

morphail's avatar

@iamthemob 1) “truth” is a count noun
2) “whole” can modify “truth”, as @Jeruba and @the100thmonkey have demonstrated.
3) again, where did you get this idea that “truth” is “technically” not a count noun and that it shouldn’t be modified by “whole”?

iamthemob's avatar


I’ll answer 3 first because it’s the easiest, as I already included my cite (which is why I didn’t answer before). Here is the information on the source. Here is his book – which actually reverses it seems a previous stance (or is before it) on the “whole truth” issue.

I never said that it couldn’t, as to number 2. I said there was a technical reason why the teacher was saying what he or she was raising. But, because of the shifting nature of grammar and theories about it, I don’t think that resort to anally retentive prescriptive grammar is a good approach and prefer more often a descriptive grammar approach, particularly when it comes to teaching ESL, where proper grammar often sounds terrible (the whole dangling participle thing should be shifted in favor of allowing them – and the split infinitive too (to go boldly? come on…)).

And you’re right on 1. I never said that it couldn’t be. But again, technically, context matters as to whether a noun is countable or not. Capital T truth is not, but I don’t really think it exists outside of grammar.

morphail's avatar

@iamthmob thanks for the link to the Longman English Grammar Practice. There is nothing in this book about “the whole truth” being wrong; in fact the phrase is used in an example on page 83.

I dont know what capital T truth is, but fact is that, whether it’s a count noun or not, all the evidence (usage of modern writers, usage of good writers for centuries, the fact that we use and understand the term) points to “the whole truth” being grammatical.

morphail's avatar

Page 83 of the PDF, page 76 of the book.

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