Here are nonnegative sentences where "at all" looks OK. What is licensing it?

  1. It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all.

  2. Maps are often outdated assuming the links still work at all.

  3. Youngblood's vocals are mixed so low that the ear struggles to make them out at all.

  4. The terrible history of what had happened at these sites haunted me, as did their material remains, but so did the troubling decision I made to be there at all.

  • Also, do these sentences look grammatically correct? It's surprising they made a decision to get a dog at all. It's surprising they made a decision to go swimming at all.
    – LizErsh
    Aug 10 at 15:22
  • 3 is not an affirmative context: it's saying there are almost no vocals.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 10 at 15:38
  • 1
    The answer is that there are "negative triggers" in your sentences, as explained by John Lawler in "At all" vs "Not at all" in negated sentences. The fact that his answer only contains a "not totally complete" list makes me think this works as its own question: Can we come up with a more comprehensive list?
    – Laurel
    Aug 10 at 15:51
  • 1
    "At all" is an adjunct so it is not licensed by anything. It's an NPI, completely excluded from positive declaratives..
    – BillJ
    Aug 10 at 16:35
  • 1
    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. In 1. I'd say that "at all" is semantically non-affirmative: you feel that they should not have been subjected to a trial at all".
    – BillJ
    Aug 11 at 16:53

3 Answers 3

  • It is outrageous that they have ever been mentioned.
  • Maps are often outdated, assuming the links ever worked at all.
  • His vocals are mixed so low that I struggled to make any of them out.
  • It haunted me, but so did the decision I made to ever go there again.

Note that these contexts also license other NPIs, besides at all.
Thus they are not "affirmative contexts".

  • 1
    I think OP's question amounts to "Why is this a negative context", though. Aug 10 at 21:32
  • 1
    Well, negation is a mosh of logic, meaning, and syntax. Anything that implies, presupposes, entails, invites the inference, or conversationally implicates the possibility of negation can license NPIs. The references at the end of my encyclopedia article go into it in great detail, which may be more than they want to know. Aug 10 at 22:02
  • 1
    @DJClayworth JL won't get to read that because you didn't ping him! In your example, the negative trigger is a condition adjunct. These explicitly allow for two possibilities, P or Not P. [They do that because they are in fact polar interrogative clauses. You heard it here first]. Aug 12 at 15:10
  • 1
    Actually, the system figured it out and pinged me. So "interrogative clause" is now a thing? What happened to questions? This reminds me a bit of Mandarin "shi bu shi" expressions (lit 'be not be'). Aug 12 at 15:13
  • 1
    @JohnLawler. My basic point is that the reality seems very much more complicated than your very short answer indicates. Try "When he achieves ultimate happiness at all it be be with the help of meditation techniques." Aug 12 at 16:40

There are plenty of uses of "at all" with a positive context.

He was ecstatic to have been given a trial at all.

If the link works at all it will give you all the information you need.

If you can make out Youngblood's vocals at all you will be impressed by his power and range.

  • 1
    It implies "It almost never happens." The import is most definitely negative.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 10 at 18:17
  • 1
    Again, the NPI accords with no.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 10 at 18:22
  • 1
    Professor Lawler doesn't really say any of this in his answer. Maybe he could expand on it? That would certainly address the issues that many skilled native English speakers have where "at all" is used in a seemingly positive way. Aug 10 at 23:17
  • 1
    @DJClayworth Conditional adjuncts are well-known NPI environments. It's clear why, of course. They allow for both the P and Not P propositions. Your examples include two of them. In truly positive environments at all still relies on negative propositions in that it specifically invites comparison of the proposition with its negative counterpart which often represents what might be expected. At all in your first example specifically implies that one might have expected he wouldn't be given a trial. Aug 12 at 21:03
  • 2
    Sorry. I mean John Lawler's, not mine. Aug 12 at 21:07

Your sentences do have a negative feel, so at all is well used there.

At all used affirmatively (both in form and 'feel') has mostly died out, but it was there in the beginning, and does survive in some parts of the world:

Before the negative, conditional, and interrogative usages came into being, “at all” was used in affirmative statements to mean “in every way,” “altogether,” “wholly,” and “solely,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, from about 1350, is

  • I þe coniure & comande att alle” (I thee conjure and command at all).

The affirmative use of the phrase has died out in common usage, however, and now survives only in some regional dialects of American and Irish English.

A 1945 article in the journal American Speech says this affirmative use “lives on in Irish dialect and in colloquial speech in certain parts of America, especially after a superlative.”

The article, which gives

  • We had the best time at all

for an example, says the usage was reported in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, elsewhere in the South, and the Midwest.
See more about the affirmative use of "at all" on Grammarphobia

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