Im trying to understand the idiomatic expression "at a loss." According to this source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/at+a+loss it can either mean "Below cost" or "Perplexed; puzzled." However, I'm wondering if it can also be used to mean the same as the definitions of the word "loss."

Can one say:

"I'm at a loss of a pencil, can you help me find it?"

And would this have the same meaning as:

"I lost a pencil, can you help me find it?"

  • Neither of the dictionary meanings is useful in the context and so will not be suitable. One cannot say I'm at a loss of a pencil as it would not have the same meaning as I lost a pencil. Just say I lost a pencil.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 7:38

2 Answers 2


The two relevant expressions are:

I am/she is/they are at loss


sold at a loss

I will ignore the price at a loss expression here.

The meaning of I am at a loss as to where my pencil is is not the same as I lost my pencil. The former means I cannot reason my way as to where I have placed my pencil, emphasizing the thought process involved and the inability to draw a conclusion. The latter merely states a fact.

Thus, I can say

I lost my pencil on the train when I gave it to James.

In that case, I cannot claim to be "at a loss", because I am fully aware of how I lost it.

  • Quite correct. The difference is between the predicate phrase (be) at a loss (about X), which means '(be) confused (about X), (be) unable to explain X', and the phrase at a loss, which refers not to perception, but to the Commercial Transaction Frame. Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 5:47

The expression "at a loss" is used to describe the noun's status that it follows. The car was sold at a loss means the sold price of the CAR is cheaper. And this phrase doesn't contain the meaning of being losing something.

so you can't say you are at a loss of a pencil

  • is cheaper requires something to compare it to...
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 4:53
  • Apparently, it compares with the price the owner bought his car Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 4:55
  • my comment is that your sentence is not correct English.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 4:58
  • "being losing something" is not correct English
    – mplungjan
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 6:45

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