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The phrase "to no avail" describes something that is futile or ineffective.

His efforts to stop the thief were to no avail.

Commonly, the phrase is separated from the independent clause of the sentence by a comma. Is this a violation, seeing as the phrase is not independent per se?

She tried to brush the tangles out of her hair, but to no avail.

She tried to brush the tangles out of her hair but to no avail.

Even when writing, I myself would not worry about throwing in the comma as I have never met any reader who finds something to pick at in a sentence like the one above. In a slightly more formal context, would the phrase be connected with or without a comma?

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    This is the type of comma that one should put in only if one hears it. Commas denote an intonation contour; if you want the reader to hear it, put in the comma; if you don't want that, don't use it. Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 17:25
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    Hi I’m Jim. nice to meet you. I’d put a comma after hair in your sentence above. ;-) Having said that, commas are not grammatical and thus cannot be subject to violation- They are elements of style and are designed to improve readability and comprehension. I think a healthy pause after hair is warranted and thus the comma. If you want readers to read straight through hair and on to but with no pause then don’t use a comma.
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 17:27
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    Yeah, this is a situation where even the "authorities" may waffle. I would tend to use the comma, but I wouldn't argue that point strongly.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 19:59

3 Answers 3

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Two British dictionaries define the word, with example sentences, as follows:

avail
noun (usually in phrase of/to no avail)
Use or benefit:
he begged her to reconsider, but to no avail
My protestations about the lack of evidence of benefit in such procedures were to no avail.
She was doing a sterling job of trying to wake him up but to no avail.
After a few frantic phone calls to no avail, the decision to ad-lib was made.
[Note: The corresponding American English entry in this dictionary did not include this usage.]

avail
noun [uncountable]
use, purpose, advantage, or profit:
We tried to persuade her not to resign, but to no avail (= did not succeed).
My attempts to improve the situation were of little/no avail.
[Note: The corresponding American English entry in this dictionary did not include the word 'avail' at all.]

You will see that, of the three example sentences terminating in "but to no avail", two precede it with a comma, and one doesn't. Personally, I would normally include a comma in that position, because, when speaking the sentence, I would normally pause slightly at that point. As John Lawler says in his comment, if you want the reader to 'hear' the pause, then include a comma.

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I'm not sure I've heard "but to no avail"; that sounds awkward to me. I would use:

She tried to brush the tangles out of her hair, to no avail.

If you want to make it a bit more dramatic:

She tried to brush the tangles out of her hair — to no avail.

As for your first sentence, I would never say "were to no avail". Maybe it makes sense on a technical level, but it feels weird. I would instead opt for concision:

His efforts to stop the thief were futile.

It's simpler and avoids any awkwardness. If you must use "avail", this sounds better to me:

His efforts to stop the thief were without avail.

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    The phrase "but to no avail" is in the British dictionaries - and is perfectly natural & valid. See my answer.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 23:20
  • @TrevorD ah, I was unaware of its use in British English. I've never heard it here (in the US). I suppose OP's final choice will depend on whether American or British English is desired. Thanks for the info! Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 23:25
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Adding ", but" seems redundant. As a British Grammar user, I am familiar with this term and use it often myself, and simply "she tried, to no avail" will always suffice; slowing it down and jamming it up with the obvious ", but" is a little pedantic.

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