5

There is a fashion in the UK, these days for adding the words 'at all' to the end of almost any inquiry that people make. For example you are likely to be asked by a ticket collector 'Have you got a ticket, at all'? Or when checking in to a hotel 'Will you want a newspaper, at all'? Or when taking your car for MOT ' Do you have the previous certificate with you, at all'?

What does it mean? Either I have the certificate with me, or I don't. There is no gradable alternative. I cannot partly have the certificate, and partly not have it, unless I have torn it in two.

Why do people say 'at all'? Indeed what is the meaning of 'at all'? Am I right in thinking it might more properly be used when asking someone if they spoke French 'at all'. Since that is a gradable condition. When, how and why did it begin to be used for non-gradable inquiries?

My theory is that it is a means of softening an otherwise brusque request. And what I would like to know is what is such an expression called?

  • 1
    I don't know that I agree with the implication that such use of at all is a recent thing, but I think your interpretation of what it means is correct. I'd say it's a hedge – FumbleFingers Nov 6 '13 at 22:18
  • Hm, that it sort of an odd thing to add onto every inquiry. Doesn't seem right...at all. With the credit card I would have taken "at all" to mean something specific, though - if you in any way have a credit card in your name, even if the card is not physically with you. Thus there is some gradation - like asking if you have another way to get to work "at all", as though there might be some normally out of the question method you could use if you really must. But without that necessity, it does seem unnecessary. – BrianH Nov 7 '13 at 2:17
  • 1
    @Brian Hall Yes what you describe is the time-honoured usage of the term. But for the last several years people, mostly functionaries, have been using it, in effect, as a closure phrase. My belief is that these are usually people who are in the position of having to ask not delicate, but essential questions about relatively unimportant matters, such as 'do you have a suitcase, (at all)?'. An alternatively polite way might be to say 'Would you happen to have a suitcase?'. The subjunctive would carry the polite inference. 'At all' is the new functional politeness. – WS2 Nov 7 '13 at 7:12
  • I'd say "Do you have the previous certificate with you, at all?" is redundant. It's ("With you" + "Elsewhere") = "At all". If you have it with you, you do have it at all, period. If you don't have it with you, you may have it at home (so you have it at all) or it could have burned and you don't have it at all. – SF. Nov 7 '13 at 13:34
6

I do not know whether this is correct and have nothing with which to back it up, but it is too long to go in a comment, so it’ll have to be an answer.

Personally, I would suspect that this is perhaps a usage that has spilt over from Hiberno-English.

In my experience, a more or less semantically void ‘at all’ is often used in Ireland as a fairly generic closing statement in questions (much like ‘right’ or ‘innit’ are used to make statements into questions). “Do you see him at all?” just means, “Do you see him?”. If ‘at all’ should be taken literally, it is sometimes doubled: “Do you see him at all, at all?”.

As far as I am aware (though again I’ve nothing to back it up with), the Irish usage comes originally from the way the phrase ar bith (meaning both ‘any’ and ‘at all’) is used in Irish, which differs somewhat from English ‘at all’. Overuse of an expression common in one’s native language when speaking a non-native language is very common, and this is originally one such case.

An bhfuil airgead ar bith agat? = Do you have any money?
Ar chodail tú (ar chor) ar bith? = Did you sleep at all?
An bhfaca tú ar bith é? ≈ Did you see him any?
An bhfaca tú ar chor ar bith é? = Did you see him at all?

From these examples, where ar bith sometimes means ‘at all’ and sometimes ‘any’, it is fairly easy for an Irish speaker learning English as a second language to overuse ‘at all’, leading to cases where ‘at all’ really just means ‘any’, or even less than that (“Did you see him any?” is not a very natural phrase, and English would just have, “Did you see him?”).

Ar chor ar bith (which unambiguously means ‘at all’, never just ‘any’) in Irish is a kind of ‘doubled expression’ in sound (ar X ar Y), so once ar bith was fairly solidly identified with ‘at all’ in English, I suspect it was rather a simple matter of simply creating a doubled expression in English to match the Irish one, and ‘at all at all’ was born.

The doubled expression has not (yet?) made it into British English as far as I know, but I don’t think it far-fetched to hypothesise that the weakened and seemingly improper use of ‘at all’ is something that comes from Hiberno-English.

  • This is very interesting. Thank you for all the effort. Though there is no certainty in any of it, it most certainly merits a tick as the response most likely to succeed. – WS2 Nov 7 '13 at 15:19
  • "Did you see him at all, at all?" was certainly recorded as an Irishism in, for example, the Irish R.M. series. – TimLymington Oct 8 '15 at 23:16
4

In the U.S., appending an "at all" at the end of a question can have one or more of four shades of signification:

  1. a betrayal of a mild irritation ("Do you have any form of payment at all?");

  2. after a verbal exchange of some length, an attempt to conclude the exchange by extracting a definitive reply of some type ("Do you have anything to write this number on at all?");

  3. a request of one to another to provide even the smallest of contributions to the matter at hand ("Class. Don't any of you have anything to say about this poem at all?"); and

  4. a conveyance of doubt of one person that the other ever satisfied a particular requirement, when the second person is attempting to conceal that fact that he did not ("Is it true that you never had any intention of completing this at all?).

  • Yes +1. These are good points and until recently were the sorts of circumstances in which at all was used in Britain. But over here it has now become fashionable among some, to use ...at all routinely, in perfectly everyday situations in which none of the above conditions apply. – WS2 Mar 20 '17 at 8:27
0

I suppose the first step is to determine the meaning, this it is my understanding to have originally meant to be a shorthand for "in any form" or "in any way" (using an example from a below reference: If thy father at all misses me). This meaning demonstrates that the term is intended to be used as an emphasis of a statement or extension of a question; in question form ensuring they cover all bases or in statement form pointing out that there is no way in which the statement could be considered in the opposite form (see: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/at-all). It also demonstrates how old the term is and how the implementation has been both adapted over time.

Originally it was only used in the positive, and I must say in a much different manner to which it is used today (see: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=at+all)

You might also find the following question interesting: "At all" vs "Not at all" in negated sentences

I personally have experienced it most often as an emphasised colloquial statement of disbelief, using your original example, some people find it amazing for someone not to have a credit card. You might have a debit card which could be construed as a different form therefore a potential offering for the question of whether you have a credit card.

  • This does not touch upon the specific use of the phrase that the question is about, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 7 '13 at 13:07
  • In the examples in the question were those in which the intention was extended by the use of "at all", the references display the origins of the first use of the explicit phrase, I must say I am fascinated by your answer and commend you for it. In fairness we have both touched on theories for the meaning of the phrase, you've gone into depth on the origins, actually neither of us have touched on the final question of what is the type of expression called. – talegna Nov 7 '13 at 13:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.