Friday, October 26, 2007

At all … a new wrinkle

Our contributor Monica has long pointed out that at all has gone from being something that clearly points to a certain quantity in questions — Did the Rockies score any runs at all? — to something constantly used in service encounters as part of what can only be a yes/no question:
Would you like a bag for that at all?
It seems to be one of those über-polite cashier usages, and to mean something like 'Would you have any interest at all in a bag?' I don't know about nationally, but around here that's just pervasive usage, and it's spread well beyond the service encounters were she, I think, first noticed it.

Last night at dinner, someone was talking about her new book (not in linguistics, sadly) and said:
I hope it sells at all.
My immediate reaction was that it was like positive anymore ('gas is expensive anymore', etc.'): What used to be used only in negative contexts has broadened to include a positive reading. (I'm pretty sure this person has positive anymore.) But I chanced to talk to Monica about it this morning and she reminded me of the 'service at all'.

Maybe two pressures pushing in the same direction?


Nancy said...

The first time I heard this usage was at a high school reunion in L.A., about 10 years ago. "So ... are you married at all?" a classmate asked me. (My response: "I used to married at all. Now I'm divorced at all.")

The Ridger, FCD said...

Weird. I was going to say that "I hope it sells at all" sounds like "I hope it sells at least some".

But "married at all"? Is that like "you? married? no way!"?

The Ridger, FCD said...

It occurs to me that while "Did the Rockies score any runs at all?" allows a quantity in the answer, it certainly can be a yes/no question.