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What does the phrase "He annoys me to no end" mean?

Literally, does it mean that he annoys me forever? Or does it mean that he annoys me to no result?

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en.wiktionary.org/wiki/no_end –  RegDwigнt May 31 '12 at 10:44
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Usually just 'no end'. –  Barrie England May 31 '12 at 10:56
    
@RegDwightΒВBẞ8, I understand how and when the phrase is used. But, I am wondering why it is used. –  dheerosaur May 31 '12 at 11:20
    
I have only heard 'annoys me to no end'. Seeing that is not the accepted usage really bugs me (no end)! –  Middle_Texas 2 days ago

4 Answers 4

The OED discusses no end in the context of end, which is noted as of Old English/Saxon origins to mean 1a. "the extremity or outermost part (in any direction) of a portion of space, or of anything extended in space; utmost limit," and 1b. "a limit of magnitude or multitude." No end is defined as a colloquialism that means "a vast quantity or number (of)," and in modern slang as "‘immensely’, ‘to any extent’; and (with of) qualifying a predicate." The provided example quotes are below.

  • 1623 J. Bingham tr. Xenophon Hist. 143 You‥made no end of promises.
  • 1856 C. Reade Never too Late x, Box at the opera costs no end.
  • 1859 F. W. Farrar Eric 55 You are no end cleverer and stronger.
  • 1866 Trollope Belton Estate III. v. 121 What comfort have I in a big house, and no end of gardens?
  • 1871 F. C. Burnand More Happy Thoughts (ed. 2) xix. 143 He ‘makes no end of stuff’, or ‘loses no end of stuff’‥on the Derby.
  • 1872 E. Peacock Mabel Heron I. i. 9 You will have no end of trouble.
  • 1883 W. Besant All in Garden Fair viii, Keats was no end of a fellow.
  • 1909 R. E. Knowles Attic Guest 54 You'll have no end of fun with him.
  • 1912 Chambers's Jrnl. Dec. 769/1 ‘I really must show this to Champneys,’ thought Michael; ‘it will please him no end.’
  • 1955 Ess. & Stud. 8 5 A few clean strokes of Occam's razor would have helped Mr. Jackson no end.
  • 1958 H. Babcock I don't want to shoot Elephant 8, I often walk fifteen miles a day while hunting.‥ This puzzles my wife no end.
  • 1970 New Yorker 3 Oct. 90/2 Thomas had been impressed no end by the sight of Klüver‥fixing an art-and-technology malfunction with a pair of pliers.
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It means that he annoys you a lot. To no end usually means 'a great deal', or 'with no end in sight'. In this case, the first meaning will apply.

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-1 I believe we need to research the origin of the term to authoritatively comment on its literal meaning. I don't think your answer addresses the "literal" aspect of the term that the question is asking about. –  zooone9243 May 31 '12 at 11:06
    
Nor is it correct, though it does participate in the common misreading of the idiom no end as to no end. But to no end means 'without effect', while no end means 'without ceasing'. This is one reason why so many people get irritated with the superfluous to. –  John Lawler 2 days ago

As I learned the phrase, it's simply he annoys me no end, meaning (literally) without limit and (actually) a great deal. He annoys me to no end would mean 'without any purpose', but since most people aren't annoying deliberately, I can't see how the phrase would be useful.

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"I can't see how the phrase would be useful" - As a native speaker of English: the fact of the matter is that the phrase is used. "Since most people aren't annoying deliberately" - I guess you haven't met my siblings and coworkers :) –  dj18 May 31 '12 at 13:44
    
@dj18: there are hundreds of millions of native speakers of English, so undoubtedly some of them use it. But I still think it not useful comnpared with annoy me no end. –  TimLymington May 31 '12 at 13:55
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To what end? –  Wayfaring Stranger May 31 '12 at 14:55
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I often hear "annoys me to no end". I can't say which is more common. –  Jay May 31 '12 at 21:46
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@dj18 There are people who are PAID to be deliberately annoying. In America we call them "telemarketers". –  Jay May 31 '12 at 21:48

It isn't difficult to invent a sentence that combines "no end" and "to no end" in their traditional idiomatic senses. Perhaps looking at such a sentence would help clarify why treating the two as equivalent in meaning isn't particularly desirable as a way to achieve immediate coherence. Here's an example:

The government spent no end of money on institutional reforms, to no end.

In this sentence "no end of money" means "a vast amount of money from a seemingly endless supply of the stuff," and "to no end" means "to no purpose" or "without positive effect."

If we shift now to the poster's sentence about an annoying person, we see that

He annoys me no end.

seamlessly employs the "endlessly" sense of the unadorned phrase "no end." In contrast, the wording

He annoys me to no end.

would be suitable for a situation where someone comes to your door and tries to get you to buy magazines subscriptions that you don't want so that he can earn points toward some sort of fabulous (and perhaps imaginary) prize. He annoys you, but you don't buy the magazines, so all his salesmanship is to no avail—or "to no end."

But many people (in the United States, anyway) say "to no end" when they mean simply "no end." In my opinion, this wording gratuitously muddies the waters of comprehension, and in a better world people wouldn't do it; but in our world it appears to be establishing itself quite comfortably. Here is an Ngram chart comparing the frequency of "annoys me no end" (blue line) and the frequency of "annoys me to no end" (red line) for the period 1900–2007:

A Google Books search for "annoys me no end" yields two matches from 1938—from John Klempner, No Storks at Nine and from Mental Hygiene, volume 22. The first match for "annoys me to no end" appears in a 1964 issue of The Broadside of Boston, seemingly in a letter to the editor.

Anyway, language being what it is, we are left to do our best to clear up ambiguities flowing from the confusing usage when we see them and are in a position to make things more lucid. As Henry Fowler wrote on another occasion in Modern English Usage (1926):

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the most modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

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