“At all”

fm131225My parents (originally from Michigan and Maine; well-educated native speakers of American English) and I agree that the comic above is sufficiently incomprehensible as to be not funny, but also that it’s written in non-standard English: the phrase “at all” at the end is very odd to our ears. Upon seeing it, I immediately wondered if the author is Minnesotan (as it turns out, he’s an Arizona native), because the strange use of “at all” in interrogatives is common here, too. Usually, I’ve run across it in the context of a cashier or waitperson asking the question “Would you like a receipt at all?” or “Can I get you the check at all?” Grammatically, it seems to be functioning as a generic question word (that is, if I were to translate from the local dialect into my own, I would simply remove the phrase and leave a question mark), but I haven’t tried to discern whether it also conveys a subtlety of meaning (nor do I know enough linguistics to know what sort of thing to be looking for here).

Maybe it is worth noting that there are contexts in which I would use “at all” as part of a question: for example, “Can I get you anything at all?” sounds correct and natural.

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5 Responses to “At all”

  1. That’s interesting! I haven’t heard “at all” used in that way before. From a linguistic point of view, I initially thought they might be using “at all” like a tag question at the end of a sentence. But I don’t think that it can be a tag question because in this case “at all” is already at the end of a question and tag questions are normally used after a declarative statement, e.g. “It’s horrible weather today, isn’t it?”

    Perhaps it is an example of a ‘filler word’, for example, words such as “like” and “kind of” are filler words. However, filler words are usually used in the middle of sentences, not at the end.

    As an aspiring university lecturer of linguistics, this sort of language variation really interests me. :) Maybe I’ll ask one of my professors whether they have come across this usage of “at all” and what they think it signifies.

  2. JBL says:

    Thanks for the comment — I agree that the usage is (or seems to be) slightly different than the first case you mention; if you strip “at all”, what’s left is a perfectly meaningful question, whereas the question tag in your example is necessary to interpret the statement as a question. If you find out anything else, let me know!

  3. Pingback: More linguistic discussion! | Cultural Life

  4. Steve Bloom says:

    http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/b/band_aid/do_they_know_christmas_time_at_all_ii.html

    #1 hit for some weeks a few decades back. Author is Irish.

  5. JBL says:

    Wonderful, thanks! (It’s a bit before my time, not that popular music has ever been my strong suit.) There’s even a Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Do_They_Know_It%27s_Christmas

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