at all

A J   Thu Jan 05, 2006 9:34 pm GMT
Dictionaries say 'at all' appears in negative sentences, but I see it in positive sentences as well.

When it's in positive sentences, how should I understand?
César   Thu Jan 05, 2006 9:57 pm GMT
Can you give examples? Cause I haven't seen it in affirmative sentences at all (as far as I remember).
Kirk   Thu Jan 05, 2006 10:26 pm GMT
"At all" is known as what's called a "negative polarity item" in semantics. Check out the Wikipedia article on polarity items:

Since negative polarity items can only occur with negative expressions, they are ungrammatical otherwise (ungrammaticality here is indicated by an asterisk):

"He can't snap at all"
*He can snap at all"

"I didn't see him at all"
*I saw him at all

Sometimes you'll find variation in terms of English dialects concerning usage of a couple specific negative polarity items. For instance, in most dialects the word "anymore" is a negative polarity item but a few American ones (especially in areas like Ohio and some parts of the Midwest, I believe) allow it in a nonnegative polarity context. I wrote about this on the old langcafe site (the temporary one) if anyone wants to read more:

But back to "at all," I can't think of any instances where it is used in a postive polarity context. If you find any examples, AJ, I'd be very interested.
Kirk   Thu Jan 05, 2006 10:31 pm GMT
Oh, something else I forgot to mention. As I pointed out in my post that I linked above, I said:


Negative polarity items may also be used even when no outright negation is being used, but a verb is being used which has "built-in" negation (for instance, "doubt").

"I doubt he'll do his homework at all
"I doubt he's come yet


This may be causing some of the confusion because there's no overt negation in those sentences. However, semantically some words like "doubt" already have negation built-in. This is why they may still be used with negative polarity items. Maybe this is what you saw, AJ.
Franco   Fri Jan 06, 2006 10:26 am GMT
This is a good example:

"I throw toilet paper AT ALL idiots who happen to walk past the door while I am emptying my bowels"

Madre mía que ingenio soy - AGUDO!
Guest   Fri Jan 06, 2006 12:12 pm GMT
You're a turd Franco
César   Fri Jan 06, 2006 3:51 pm GMT
Franco, when you throw something, you throw it AT somebody (based on the example).

You cannot say "You threw it me." Instead, you must say "You threw it at me." Got it? So, in your example, you throw toilet paper at ALL the idiots...

En otras palabras, malinterpretaste el inglés (In other words, you misinterpreted English).
Franco   Fri Jan 06, 2006 8:41 pm GMT
Read my sentance again. I did say AT.
A J   Sun Feb 19, 2006 1:30 pm GMT
The first requirement for all writers is to know what meaning they want to convey, and it is only by clothing their thoughts in words that they can think "at all".

-The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

I think I've found an example, even though a little bit suspicious and unsatisfactory. The quotation mark is added by me to make it outstand.

Is that proper?
Benjamin   Sun Feb 19, 2006 5:17 pm GMT
Yes, that is correct. I'm not really sure if I can explain it though. Basically, two possibilities would be:

He can't speak at all.
Only by/when ... can he speak at all.
It is only by/when ... that he can speak at all.