According to grammar books, at all means 'in any way' and is NOT used in affirmative sentences. But in the example

It is essential to democracy that any group of citizens whose interests or desires separate them at all widely from the rest of the community should be free to decide their internal affairs for themselves,

which is from "Political Ideals" (1917) by Bertrand Russell, it is used in an affirmative sentence.

What does at all mean here? And is this usage considered to be acceptable today?

  • 1
    It is written entirely in today's idiom. As you suggested in your question it means "in any way", or "in any respect".
    – WS2
    Mar 5, 2018 at 17:17
  • 1
    It's part of the negative polarity environment indicated by the any. At all is what we call "secondary triggering", and it simply has too many words stuck between any and at all. Mar 5, 2018 at 22:44

1 Answer 1


In this sentence, the phrase 'at all' is used to lessen the severity, so to speak, of the adverb 'widely'. In other words, Bertrand Russell is using the phrase 'at all' to include groups whose 'interests or desires' would not necessarily be perceived as separating them 'widely' from the rest of the community.

I have certainly heard this usage in casual conversation, but it is technically incorrect. According to Cambridge English Dictionary,

At all means ‘in any way’. We use it with questions and negatives to add emphasis, but not with affirmative statements.

"At all - English Grammar Today." Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed March 05, 2018. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/useful-phrases/at-all.

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