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I thought that всё referred to inanimate/abstract concepts - like in всё равно or это всё - and все was used with animate - like все студенты. But I've seen the two used in virtually the same contexts recently, and I'm confused as to the difference between them. Is все just an alternate spelling of всё for keyboards without the ё diacritic? Is there a semantic or syntactical difference between them?

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    Dictionary is always to be consulted before asking questions here. Всё means "everything", все means "all; everybody". – Yellow Sky Jan 12 '15 at 0:39
  • You write, "But I've seen the two used in virtually the same contexts recently". Which contexts??? Give at least one example. – user31264 Jan 12 '15 at 0:57
  • @user31264 - I'm afraid, анна has not enough reputation points to leave comments. Such contexts can be, for example, "Всё в порядке" and "все в порядке." Анна can edit the question, though. – Yellow Sky Jan 12 '15 at 1:20
  • @YellowSky Users are always allowed to comment their own posts. – Artemix Jan 12 '15 at 8:06
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всё can be spelled все, when it's possible to distinguish two words using available context.

всё (with Ё) is used when referring to neuter gender singular nouns:

всё время (compare masculine весь путь and feminine всю дорогу), забрызгал всё окно

всё молоко (compare feminine вся вода)

все (with Е) is used when referring to plural nouns: все студенты, все яблоки, все кирпичи, все тарелки.

Also, there are some idioms, like one you mentioned — всё равно, and unchangeable expressions, like всё-таки.

Substituting Ё with Е.

jwalker posted a link to this question about Ё and Е

Ё can be substituted for Е in most words. It is not a rule but Ё is not used very often in printed texts. Usually, it's possible to distinguish when Е means Ё from the context.

It's highly recommended to use Ё:

  • when needed to distinguish from the similar word with Е, for example:
  • узна́ем (future tense first person plural of узнать) and узнаём (present tense first person plural of узнавать)
  • совершённый (participle from verb совершить) and совершенный (adjective, meaning perfect)
  • In dictionaries, textbooks for language learners
  • In little-known, obscure, and loanwords

Links

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    The distinction of countable vs. uncountable nouns is not valid in Russian. Besides, всё can be used with nouns that are countable in English, e.g.: Забрызгал всё окно/платье/пальто. Уничтожили всё племя. Всё сердце отдал школе. Всё лицо в слезах. Всё плечо в татуировках. And so on. – Yellow Sky Jan 12 '15 at 1:36
  • @YellowSky can you edit my answer to make it better? – andrybak Jan 12 '15 at 1:38
  • Please, edit it yourself, simply change 'uncountable nouns with neutral grammatical gender' for 'neuter gender singular nouns' and 'countable nouns' for 'plural nouns', that's all. – Yellow Sky Jan 12 '15 at 1:43
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To be short:
Все - means "everyone".
Всё - "everyting".

But there are a lot of exceptions.
You say "все" about something you can count. "У меня есть все чашки" - "I have all the cups";
And you say "всё" about something you cannot count. "Я выпил всё молоко"- "I drank all the milk"

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"все" means everything, anything, everybody, everyone, anyone

"всё" means all

For example

"Всем пока" goodbye everyone

"Всё готово" all done

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A small addendum about substitution and context. In texts for language learners ё should always be used. However, if you look into texts by native speakers, esp. into somewhat literature-based texts for native speakers, ё is mostly replaced with an е.

So, if a literature example from a non-adapted book does not make sense, consider thinking if a ё replacement did not take place. Basing on above examples, if you see

Вася выпил все молоко.

this is actually a всё молоко, but a native speaker is expected to infer this from the context.

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Please, see here how the determinative pronoun весь declines. The difference between все and всё is obvious there.

Also note the use of Е as a shorthand for Ё.

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