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I just learned a phrase "go to great lengths" which means to try one's best. But I've no idea where does this phrase come from, or why it's like this. How to understand "great lengths"? Why using plural form of length? Why "go to great lengths" rather than "go great lengths"?

Thanks a lot.

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    Great lengths are like normal lengths, only greater. – Robusto Jan 13 '15 at 3:39
  • @Robusto Why "go to great lengths" rather than "go great lengths"? – Weibo Li Jan 13 '15 at 3:47
  • @WeiboLi Probably for the same reason that we don't go the park, but rather go to the park. – Anonym Jan 13 '15 at 3:52
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    I disagree that go to great lengths means try one's best. Rather it means to expend effort above that which is normally expected. – Jim Jan 13 '15 at 4:11
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    You are correct, @Weibo - but this is a "culturalism," that defies strict grammatical analysis. – user98990 Jan 13 '15 at 4:19
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To go to has a non-obvious secondary meaning of 'to perform', 'to undertake' or 'to try very hard' in a few common expressions that have a similar meaning to 'to go to great lengths', such as 'to go to a lot of effort' or 'to go to some trouble'.

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    every effort, ends of the earth, nth degree... – stevesliva Jan 13 '15 at 4:20
  • To add to this, I've always thought it was related to distance: if you run very far (great lengths), that's how willing you are to get something done. – tf.rz Jan 13 '15 at 5:14
  • This 'non-obvious secondary meaning' answered my question. Thanks a lot. – Weibo Li Jan 13 '15 at 7:09
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To go to great lengths is perhaps idiomatic, but easily understandable. The AHDEL defines length (or lengths) as:

  1. *often lengths) Extent or degree to which an action or policy is carried: went to great lengths to prove his point.

Many other dictionaries give this definition as well.

You ask, why not "go great lengths"? It's not a place to which someone has gone, it's a degree to which someone has gone.

Even if it were a place, it's usually an end point.

"I went all the way to the top to get this assignment for you."

If you want an idiom that is fun to contemplate,

to bend over backwards

means the same thing.

  • Yes, I would climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest ocean, ... isn't there a third exemplar? – user98990 Jan 13 '15 at 8:49
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    @LittleEva - I've heard no mountain too high, no valley too wide, no river too deep... but admittedly that's from a song. ') – anongoodnurse Jan 13 '15 at 8:58

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