Today I learned that "du tout au tout" is an adverb-like expression meaning something like "completely, utterly, entirely".

When I type "du tout" into WordReference, its drop-down auto-suggestion box has entries such as "pas du tout", "rien du tout", "plus du tout". Of these, I'm familiar with "pas du tout".

Suppose I have become familiar enough with "pas du tout" that my brain accepts "du tout" without thinking about it; but that my brain is surprised to hear "au tout".

  • Can "du tout au tout" be broken down into "du tout" and "au tout", so that we can sense how "du tout" and "au tout" separately contribute to the meaning of "du tout au tout"? (Or, putting this question a different way, does "de" and "à" connote a difference to francophones when they hear "du tout" and "au tout" juxtaposed together in "du tout au tout"?).
  • Or, instead, is "du tout au tout" a completely opaque idiom, where its two parts (ie "du tout" and "au tout") are almost meaningless to francophones?
  • Du tout au tout, complètement, entièrement : Changer du tout au tout. Larousse. AKA in English: all in all
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 14:53
  • sorta like tryng to explain "the whole kit and caboodle"
    – Engineer
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 17:28
  • @Engineer No, "the whole (kit and) caboodle" would be something like "tout le bataclan" (a rather disapproving term).
    – LPH
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 21:13

3 Answers 3


Du tout au tout” is constructed as “de … à …”. A word-by-word translation would be “from the whole to the whole“. It's highly unusual to use “de X à X”, normally you would say “de X à Y” with X ≠ Y, so in this way “du tout au tout” is an idiom: you can't replace tout by something else. But the formation is somewhat meaningful: it's a reinforcement of (le) tout.


Du tout au tout is an idiom that almost always follows a verb related to a change or a difference (changer, différer, modifier, se tromper...).

The first tout and the second one do not represent the same thing but two different ones, each one in its totality. Literally, the idiom means from the (first) whole to the (other) whole.

Un musicien de jazz ne « met pas en place » un arrangement de la même façon qu’un musicien classique : l'attaque, l'inflexion, la technique instrumentale diffèrent souvent du tout au tout.
Boris Vian, Autres écrits sur le Jazz, 1950.

[...] les russophiles ont la générosité d'octroyer aux Ukrainiens la qualité de Russes, mais ceux-ci déclinent pour leur part cet honneur, et il ne s'agit pas d'un vain entêtement. Psychologiquement, les deux nations diffèrent du tout au tout, et sur beaucoup de points, ils font contraste.
Leon Poliakov, Moscou : troisième Rome, 1989

Pour ce jour-là, du moins, je sais bien que, si Aimé ne mentait pas sciemment, il se trompait du tout au tout.
Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, 1913

Léo me fit la tête trois jours durant. Mais son humeur (ainsi que la mienne) changea du tout au tout dès que monsieur Silver gara devant le 17 Friday Street le camping-car qu’il avait loué.
Roberto Pavanello, Le réveil des trolls, 2013

There are several expressions with a similar meaning like de haut en bas, de fond en comble, du sol au plafond, de A à Z (English also has "from top to bottom", "from A to Z"...)

Using the same substantive to represent different things is not a unique case. For example, de bout en bout and de temps en temps are doing it too.

Same case in English with "from end to end" and "from time to time".


Transcribing this locution in proper language, and still preserving the essential terms that are found in it we can turn it into "du tout à un tout autre tout" or "d'un tout à un tout autre tout", according as we have the idea of treating the initial situation as determinate or not, respectively. The condensing of one or the other as "du tout au tout" is an idiomatic turn that confers only vaguely to the fluent speaker meaningful syntactic relations between terms and he/she will have to think for some time in order to come up with a sensical rendering; it is semi-opaque as the coding of two different things by a single word ("tout") can't be elicited from the apparent syntax.

  • Expression, not locution.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 14:53
  • @Lambie "Like a (large) number of in [2] are locutions such as a lot of. a (whole) set of, a spate of, plenty of …" (CoGEL) — SOED : Locution 1 A form of expression; a phrase, an expression.
    – LPH
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 21:03
  • We say in the world of translation: an idiomatic expression. Not a locution. A form of expression does not mean what you think it means. That's precisely the problem. Also, you use transcribing incorrectly in English. Transcribing means listening to a tape and typing out what is on it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 22, 2022 at 15:19

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