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I assume that

*He didn't say he enjoyed the party at all.

is ungrammatical. But what about

He didn't think he enjoyed the party at all.

Is this analysis correct? And if yes: What's the difference?

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To me the second seems worse than the first. Neither looks right and both are ambiguous, but at least the first one makes some sense. It could mean that he made no mention whatsoever of his enjoyment of the party. – Alan Gee Oct 18 '12 at 8:16
Why assume that the first is ungrammatical? Though a bit awkward, it seems grammatical to me. – nohat Oct 19 '12 at 1:26
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The first would normally be expressed as He said he didn’t enjoy the party at all, although the negative form of say could introduce a projected clause minus at all: He didn't say he enjoyed the party. The reason is that if the unfortunate party-goer didn’t say anything, it’s not possible for the speaker to assess the degree of the absence of pleasure.

The second example is a little different. Here the speaker is not necessarily reporting the actual words spoken or not spoken. Rather, the speaker is giving an assessment of the state of mind of the dejected reveller, and it is thus permissible to give an opinion on the total lack of enjoyment experienced.

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Your analysis is not correct, because there's nothing ungrammatical about the first sentence. Consider:

Bob: "He said he enjoyed the party."
Rob: "No! He didn't say he enjoyed the party at all. In fact, he said he had a terrible time."
Bob: "Oh, I need to get my ears checked, then."

NOAD has a dictionary entry for at all; it reads:

at all in any way; to any extent : I don't like him at all | did he suffer at all?


He didn't think he enjoyed the party at all.

is roughly the same as:

He didn't think he enjoyed the party in any way whatsoever.

That construct could work fine in a context like this:

What did he think of the party? The music was terrible, and it blared too loud. The conversation was awful. None of his friends showed up. Nobody danced. The beer was flat. He didn't think he enjoyed the party at all.

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But the sentences are ambiguous, aren't they? Can't "He didn't say he enjoyed the party at all" as well mean "He didn't say (at all) he enjoyed the party"? – SingerOfTheFall Oct 18 '12 at 8:45
@Singer: Good point. If the question was, "Is this sentence worded in a way that is ambiguous, absent any other context?" then I would agree, there's more than one way to interpret the sentence. However, the question asked about ungrammaticality, not ambiguity. Moreover, the correct interpretation is often discernable given the context of the sentence. In fact, I addressed your point in my answer, in a way. Notice how in the dialog between Rob and Bob, the at all means, "He didn't say (at all) he enjoyed the party," but in the short paragraph, it means, "He didn't enjoy the party (at all)." – J.R. Oct 18 '12 at 8:51
thanks, that's what was confusing me about the question :P – SingerOfTheFall Oct 18 '12 at 8:53

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