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I don't know how to say it but "at all" used in yes or no questions has a specific function. I would maybe call it "asking for a basic reality" but I don'T know if that makes sense to anyone.

Do you drink milk at all?

I feel like "at all" does not work with w-questions.

Where is the bar at all?

  • Are there examples where it does work?
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Would it work at all?

That is, would "it" function even partly, or was it completely broken (if "it" is a device) or completely hopeless (if "it" was an idea).

In general, in most dialects, the "at all" can be replaced with "even a little", and assumes that the answer is either "no" or "just a little bit".

It comes from using "at all" in statements to emphasise a lack:

That wouldn't interest me at all.

The "at all" here adds emphasis to the lack of interest, not only would the topic not interest the speaker, but they don't even have a tiny amount of interest.

Some dialects use it as a more general emphasis though, either just to raise the attention on the question, (especially if one of personal opinion) or to express puzzlement as to the answer (especially if one of fact), such as this quote from Father Ted:

God, Ted, how did the sergeant catch Father Jack at all?

Now, Father Ted is a comedy where the writers favour some Hibernicisms because they sound funny even to those who'd use those same turns of phrase, and their dialogue is sometimes more stereotypical than realistic. It is still sometimes used informally in Irish dialects, to varying degrees.

So, in those dialects you can use it with almost any question to express puzzlement or just as general emphasis. Otherwise you can use it when the answer is one of degree, and you're already led to believe the answer will be either "no, not at all/not the slightest bit" or "just a very small amount".

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A very interesting question - this is something that I have noticed recently. I would say that, in order to say "at all", there needs to be some kind of quantity scale, ranging from "a little" to "a lot". So "Do you drink milk at all?" is OK, as you may drink just a tiny bit, or perhaps you drink several litres a day. What irks me is questions like "Would you like a receipt at all?" - this does not make sense. You'd either like one or not, there's no aspect of quantity. It wouldn't make sense to answer "Yes, I'd like just a little bit of a receipt please." I hope this helps!

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    I think you're missing the point of why people say things like "Would you like X at all?". It's not asking whether you want perhaps only a little bit of X - it's asking whether you have any liking at all for the possibility of having X. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 21:36
  • Exactly. It has interpersonal meaning rather than ideational meaning. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 21:37
  • @Barrie: I'll admit I don't clearly understand the interpersonal / ideational distinction there. The way I see it is even when at all is tacked on to the end of a question that would otherwise have ended with a noun, it doesn't modify that noun. It modifies whatever verb appears in the question. Which as user65336 (almost) says, is normally only credible if it's possible to "do" that verb to a greater or lesser extent. But you do sometimes hear "ultra-polite" things like "Do you live here at all?" (without implying "...even if only for just a few days a year"). Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 21:48
  • I understand your point. To ask whether you have any liking at all for the possibility of having X is not ungrammatical, and in some cases perhaps logical. It does, though, appear somewhat unnecessary in a question such as "Would you like to pay by card at all?" Sure, it's not incorrect, but it seems less than necessary to inquire about the degree to which someone would like to pay with their card. It's really a simple request for a yes/no answer. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 21:49
  • @GrammarNasty: Well, I'm certainly not going to defend such "overstretched" usages on grammatical or logical grounds, but it's not that far removed from, say, "Would you like to pay by card, perhaps?", so I can see why some people tend to do it when they're trying to be extremely polite/deferential. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 22:55

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