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I've been trying to identify the difference in usage between saying chip away and chip away at something but I can't see any. The sentences in dictionaries all seem like they could accept both. So my question is when do I use chip away and when do I use chip away at? Or even, is there a difference between them?

I'll share some examples, of both uses:

Ex: - Use this tool to CHIP AWAY the wall.

  • Somebody chipped away little bits of the wood from that step.
  • The paint is so old that it has completely chipped away from this side of the house. Ex: - I CHIPPED AWAY AT the dried cement on the tiles.
  • They won’t be able to move this huge rock until they chip away at it and make it smaller.
  • His comments were beginning to chip away at her self-confidence.
  • She chipped away at the problem until it was solved.
  • You shouldn’t get too overwhelmed about cleaning the house and just chip away at it one room at a time.

I don't understand the difference...for I can see myself using 'chip away' (without AT) in all the examples with AT.

There's another question here about 'chip away at', but that question does not explain the difference between chip away at and just chip away, which is precisely my doubt.

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  • Please edit to include a couple of example sentences.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 16:36
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    I would suggest that you chip away a layer of something you want to remove, like old paint or plaster. You chip away at a block of a hard substance that you want to shape or reduce in size. It isn't necessarily a hard and fast distinction, though. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 16:59
  • If you're sculpting from a matrix stone, you chip away at this stone and chip away the unwanted material (chips / flakes). Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 17:00
  • Does this answer your question? The usage of chip away at Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 17:52
  • The question cited by @Cascabel is related to this one, but it does not specifically address the difference between the versions of the phrase with and without at, so this is not exactly a duplicate of it.
    – jsw29
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 18:06

1 Answer 1

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To chip away, without at, stands for a nearly instantaneous action of (either literally or metaphorically) breaking away a small part of something and thus damaging, or otherwise modifying, that thing. To chip away at something stands for an action that goes on for some time, of trying to damage, or otherwise modify, that thing by (either literally or metaphorically) breaking away a number of small pieces of it.

It should be noted that in the version of the phrase without at, the phrase is followed by a term for the relatively small pieces that are broken away from a larger object, while in the other version, at is followed by a term for the larger object from which the pieces are broken. To use the OP's first example, one can thus say either:

Somebody chipped away little bits of the wood from that step.

or

Somebody chipped away at the step.

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