I'm looking for the source of the distinction between "nothing" and the nearly equivalent phrase "nothing at all." In common usage the two are synonymous, but the preposition "at all" seems to suggest a more nuanced logic: "Nothing," but a nothing coinciding in the place of "all." The latter speaks less to the negation of the presence something and more to the condition of a gap in a totality.

I've seen definitions of the Latin nil being equally "nothing" or "nothing at all;" if this is the case, I wonder when and where the equivocation comes from.

  • 2
    There's no difference. At all is an intensifier of negation and other negative polarity items; nothing at all means, essentially, 'very nothing'. It's redundant, but emphasis is often signalled by redundancy and repetition. May 24, 2014 at 18:57
  • 1
    'Absolutely nothing' is very very nothing. May 24, 2014 at 19:08
  • 1
    @JohnLawler That's at the heart of the issue: how is it that 'at all' became a generic and necessarily negative intensifier? There are few noticeable correlations on the paper you linked, mostly circulating around the establishment of a set of possibilities and relationships to exception from the set. Most of those usages are recent, do you know anything about earlier occurrences? 19th C Gothic or German fantastic literature (I'm recalling here) would use the redundancy of 'it was nothing (at all)' as a sort of overcompensation in the face of the threat that there really was something there.
    – o1lo01ol1o
    May 24, 2014 at 20:10
  • They didn't all happen at once; they're mostly parts of fixed phrases that have become tidelocked in negative contexts. That's what OED says happened to at all: 'in every way, in any way'. Formerly only affirmatively = altogether, wholly (now only Irish, dial., and U.S. local); now often in negative or interrogative sentences, or conditional clauses: e.g. _ did not speak at all; did you speak at all? if you spoke at all_. Earliest negative citation the OED gives is 1535, latest non-negative one is 1552. May 24, 2014 at 20:42
  • That's interesting. So 'at all' affirmatively signified a whole until the 16th century when it instead signified the exception from the whole (negatively). I thought the relation would have been inherited earlier form Greek or Latin translations but it makes sense that it would coincide with the 16th century's discoveries of alterity.
    – o1lo01ol1o
    May 24, 2014 at 21:29

2 Answers 2


At all is simply an intensifying additional element without any inherent grammatical purpose, and is found in other contexts too, not just in the expression 'nothing at all':

Do you listen to what I tell you at all?

You don't seem at all interested in what I'm saying.

Have you studied for your exam at all?

  • 3
    But it is a negative polarity item, so it's ungrammatical outside a negative context (provided in your examples by the question construction in #1 & #3, and the negative in #2). Without them the sentences are ungrammatical: *I listened to it at all, *He seems at all interested, *I've studied at all for my exam. May 24, 2014 at 19:19
  • I guess that's like saying there are any cookies left. May 24, 2014 at 19:26

Isn't the at all meant to rule out the sort of something that is so insignificant as to be effectively nothing? I take nothing at all to be similar to not even a little bit (or absolutely nothing). The at all emphasises that it is not only the case that there is nothing, it is also the case that there isn't even a small amount of something that most people would consider nothing.

Even better: less than nothing.

  • It's pragmatic rather than semantic: Nothing – REALLY! May 24, 2014 at 19:56
  • "There was nothing there." "Nothing at all?" "Well, there was an empty bottle." May 24, 2014 at 19:57
  • Yes, it's tied up with how people actually use English rather than how an intelligent alien would predict that they did from a study of syntax and semantics: pragmatics. A literalist would say: "There was nothing there." "Nothing at all?" "I just said that." May 24, 2014 at 20:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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