How to Use “Whole” and “Entire”: The Whole Picture

How to Use "Whole" and "Entire": The Whole Picture

Although “whole” and “entire” are very common words, you’d be surprised by how many people still find them difficult to use.

In fact, I recently got a message from a Clark and Miller reader called Oscar. Here’s what he said:

“I’d like to have some tips to explain the difference between whole, entire and all … although I know how to use it, I want to know a better way to explain it.”

Great question. At first glance, “whole” and “entire” (and “all”) can be kind of confusing.

But there’s actually quite an easy way to look at it.

Today we’re going to deal with the differences (and similarities) between “whole” and “entire.”

“Whole” and “entire” as adjectives

In short, “whole” and “entire” describe 100% of a single thing:

Multiple black circles of different sizes on a light background. Each circle is labelled "thing." One circle has a line underneath spanning its diameter with 100 percent written below the line.

“Whole” and “entire” can be adjectives — we use them in the same way. Let’s take the adjective “boring” as an example and see how it behaves.

In the sentence “We watched a boring film,” you’ve got the structure “a + adjective + noun.”

This also works with “the”: “the boring film.”

And if you don’t want to use “a” or “the,” then … well, go ahead: “boring films.”

The words “whole” and “entire” work the same way — just put them before the noun.

So instead of “We watched a boring film,” you can have “We watched a whole film” or “We watched an entire film.”

Text: a boring film, a whole film, a + adjective (whole, entire) + noun

Instead of “We watched the boring film,” you could say, “We watched the whole film” “or “We watched the entire film.” And … well. You get the idea.

Text: the boring film, the whole film, the + adjective (whole, entire) + noun

But be careful. There’s a rule!

Text: The rule: Don't use "the whole" or "the entire" with plurals

We never use “the whole” or “the entire” with plural nouns.

So you can say “We watched the whole film” and “We watched three whole films,” but you can’t say “We watched the whole films.”

Let’s look at some examples:

“The whole” and “the entire” + singular noun

Remember: we can only use “the whole” and “the entire” with a singular noun (“television,” “woman,” “suggestion,” etc.).

“I slept through the whole flight. I feel great!”

“He spent the entire day trying to solve the technical issue and got nothing done.”

“We had to wait for the whole process to finish before we could try again.”

By the way, “the whole …” has the same meaning as “all of the …” More on that in a future post.

“A whole” and “an entire” + singular noun

Remember: we can only use “a whole” and “an entire” with singular nouns — no plurals and no uncountable nouns!

“Ursula never thought she could eat an entire carrot cake in less than a minute. But she did.”

“Terri’s a really fast reader. She’ll read an entire book before breakfast.”

“Come on! There’s a whole list of things we need to do before lunch. Let’s get started!”

“Whole” and “entire” (with no article)

Remember: we can only use “whole” and “entire” with no article with plural nouns, like “televisions,” “women” and “suggestions.”

“The new solar farm will be able to power entire cities at once.”

Whole families had to share rooms after the earthquake.”

“He reads whole dictionaries at a time.”

N.B. You can’t use “whole” and “entire” with uncountable nouns. So you can’t say “He wants entire money,” or “Breathe in the whole oxygen!” or “Can I have an entire information?” With uncountable nouns, use “all the” (or “all that”): “He wants all the money,” “Breathe in all that oxygen!” and “Can I have all the information?”

What’s the difference between “whole” and “entire”

Is there any difference between them?

Well, not really. There’s almost no difference in meaning, but there’s a small difference in emphasis.

Although “whole” and “entire” have the same basic meaning, “entire” usually feels stronger. Use it when you want to emphasise how “100%” something is.

Frame 1: Man shows woman a small cake. She says, "Wow" You're going to eat the whole thing?" Frame 2: Man shows woman an enormous cake. She says, "Wow" You're going to eat the entire thing?"

Common phrases with “whole” (as a noun)

There are two common phrases in English where we use “whole” as a noun. Let’s check them out one by one.

See someone as a whole

Sometimes it feels easy to figure people out.

Like when you go to a party and you meet Ranjit. And at the party, Ranjit is totally crazy. He’s just stolen a traffic cone and he’s telling you a crazy story about his gorilla friend called Karen.

A gorilla, a traffic cone and a smartly dress man with the text "You're never gonna believe this!"
From retro Clark and Miller post, Why Reported Speech Is a Waste of Time

So you form an opinion pretty quickly about Ranjit. And that opinion is “Ranjit is a crazy party guy.”

And so you call up Ranjit whenever you want to go out and have fun.

But Ranjit isn’t just a party guy.

He has a nice family, he likes playing golf and he’s very serious about his job as a giraffe inspector. In fact, Ranjit is so much more than just a party guy.

Like most people, he’s multi-faceted — he’s got a lot of sides to his personality.

But if you just see him as the party guy, you’re not going to see the real Ranjit. You need to see him as a whole — as a complex, multi-faceted human being.

We all do this, right? We form an opinion about someone and then that’s the only thing we associate with that person.

But, of course, it’s better to try and see people as a whole.

Let’s check out some examples:

“I wish he could see me as a whole — not just the person in the photos I share on Facebook. Know what I mean?”

“Look! It’s time you started seeing yourself as a whole and not just some person who used to live on a farm.”

And, of course, there’s this joke:

Comic: angry-looking stick figure standing and looking into a hole in the ground. Dialogue coming out of the whole: "But I thought you wanted to see me as a hole!" Stick figure replies: "Not that kind of hole!"

On the whole

This phrase means “generally speaking.”

We use it when we’re assessing a situation or an experience or a project or a process or something like that.

It’s useful when we want to give a general idea about something — to describe the overall result.

It’s like we’re using some scales, and we’re balancing the good and the bad and coming up with a conclusion.

Old-fashioned scale with the text "good things" on one side and "bad things" on the other side. Image 1: scale tipped towards "good things" with text "On the whole, things are good." Image 2: scale tipped towards bad things" with text "On the whole, things are bad."

This phrase is especially good when you’re reaching the end of describing something (whether speaking about it or writing an essay), and you want to start drawing conclusions.

Let’s dive straight into examples here:

“There were a few technical issues, but on the whole I think the conference went pretty well.”

“The human body, on the whole, is surprisingly quiet if you think about how much work it’s doing all the time.”

“I’m sorry — the plan was awful! On the whole, it’s done more harm than good.”

And that’s all you need to know (probably) about “whole” and “entire.”

But before you move on, how about some practice?

Can you answer these questions?

  1. On the whole, how is 2021 going for you?
  2. Have you ever read a whole book in one day? Which book was it?
  3. Have you ever gone to the cinema and slept through the entire film? Which film was it?

Answer in the comments.

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6 thoughts on “How to Use “Whole” and “Entire”: The Whole Picture

  1. I like your explanation of the material. In general (on the whole) I used a little translator to understand. Thank you.

  2. Hi Gabriel, I really appreciate your reply. It was a complete surprise this morning when I opened my email. The explanation was clear and it gave me better ideas to transmit to my students…keep in touch.

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