Learning another language has made me more aware of my own. For instance, I tell someone, “That’s no trouble at all,” and it dawns on me that the phrase “at all” is used a lot. “He’s doing nothing at all.” “I don’t like it at all.” “It’s no fun at all.” “She’s not worried at all.”
I know what we mean when we say it (in any way, for any reason, in the slightest degree), but I wonder why people joined the word “at” with the word “all” to say those things?
Ikuni and I discuss this as she slurps ramen and sits cross-legged on the kitchen counter (we still need stools for the breakfast bar). And I do what I always do when I don’t know the answer to something. Start Googling.
I don’t find much at first but I do find the quote:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. ~George Orwell
Next, I search Wikipedia, where I get sidetracked and learn that “loosely speaking, the collection of properties, which all languages share, can be referred to as ‘universal grammar’ (or UG).” Ug—that gives us a chuckle.
But, back to “at all.” Dictionary.com says the word “at” has many uses. No “at all” listed but we wonder if “at” is combined with “all,” because the former can be used to “indicate amount, degree, or rate.”
Then I find this tidbit from Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University, under the heading “Common Errors in English Usage”:
Some of us are irritated when a grocery checker asks “Do you want any help out with that at all?” “At all” is traditionally used in negative contexts: “Can’t you give me any help at all?” The current pattern of using the phrase in positive offers of help unintentionally suggests aid reluctantly given or minimal in extent. As a way of making yourself sound less polite than you intend, it ranks right up there with “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.”
After that I discover a great blog called The Grammatically Incorrect Librarian, and I find the website The Phrase Finder, which gives meanings and origins of phrases and has a page of well-known misquotations, like the never once uttered by Captain Kirk, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Again, no “at all,” but Ikuni and I take their Shakespeare phrase quiz (it changes when you refresh the page) and we both score 7 out of 10.
Oh, and apparently there’s a Beatles Revival Band who has covered the song “Any Time At All,” from the album A Hard Day’s Night.
By now, Ikuni has finished her meal. She rinses her chopsticks and retreats to her room, while I, on the other hand, continue surfing the Net and have no idea at all where that might take me.