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As promised, here’s a quick summary of the (to) no end idiom.  In the original post, I asked what people thought of sentences like (1a) and (1b):

(1a) The crank insulted me to no end.
(1b) The crank insulted me no end.

Are they acceptable to you?  If so, what do they mean?  I’d figured that the answers would be pretty straightforward.  But, as it turns out, you readers are a far more diverse lot than I’d ever expected.  Thanks to that diversity, it’s now clear that these idioms are themselves far more diverse than I’d expected.  The range of views on the matter blindsided me, especially since I still think I hadn’t heard (1b) before a few weeks ago.

A few commenters were in the same camp with me, ignorant of no end. What surprised me is that they were geographically widespread; three were from the U.S. (Alaska, Pacific Northwest, and Mid-Atlantic), but one was from Canada, and one was from Australia.  A few were my evil twins, unfamiliar with to no end, or at least preferring no end over it; two from the U.S. and one from Canada.  So that’s weird, because I’d sort of suspected that the (1a)/(1b) distinction was one of those Anglo-American differences, but clearly members of both camps share North America.  (No Brits preferred to no end over no end, so there could still be some A-A effect.)

But — and I intend no offense to those of you who were mentioned in the preceding paragraph — the really interesting commenters were the ones who considered both (1a) and (1b) to be perfectly good ways of saying different things.  Apparently there is a sizable contingent of readers who think that (1a) and (1b) should be paraphrased as (2a) and (2b), respectively:

(2a) The crank insulted me without a goal or without achieving anything.
(2b) The crank insulted me endlessly.

I think that’s the meaning distinction people saw; it’s awfully hard for me to tell since I do not have such a distinction.  (I would use for no end to represent the meaning of (2a), which is where I’m getting my paraphrase from.)  At least two commenters felt this way, one from the Mid-Atlantic U.S. and one from the British Midlands.

I don’t know that there’s any great insight about usage to draw from this data, expect perhaps the greatest of all: each of us knows next-to-nothing about general English usage.  I think of myself as being pretty familiar with American English because I’ve lived in three corners of the country, have associated with the underclass, old money, and the nouveau riche, and have almost managed to figure out what might could means.  But I didn’t know anything about the variability in this idiom.  This serves as a reminder to would-be prescriptivists: you’d better do some research before you go around telling people what’s right and wrong in language.  No matter how much experience you have with the language, it’s always possible that your usage is the odd one out. Don’t trust someone’s prescriptions just because they seem like they know English well.  Make sure they’ve done their homework on it.

Or, in this particular case: dismissing either to no end or no end as bad English with just a sentence or two just makes you look foolish.

Sometimes prescriptivists render me dumb.  I mean dumb in both its senses: speechless and stupid.  I’ll just stare at the comment and my brain sputters, trying to object but just bumping up against the enormity of the proscription’s idiocy.  For instance, today I chanced upon the prescription that (1a) is wrong and (1b) is right:

(1a) The letter pleased him to no end.
(1b) The letter pleased him no end.

Really?  I don’t ever remember having heard anyone say a sentence like (1b), but I know I’ve heard a lot of people use to no end as in (1a).  Whatever, I muttered, let it go.  But curiosity got the better of me, and I looked around for others who held this view.  And, in the book I’m currently skimming through and will be railing against in a forthcoming post (The Dictionary of Disagreeable English by Robert Hartwell Fiske), what did I find but an injunction against to no end! Fiske writes:

“The phrases you complain of [including to no end] are bastardizations born of mishearing and nurtured by imitation.”

What on Earth is Fiske talking about?  All of language is nurtured by imitation.  It’s how we acquire language, how we use it.  And idioms, including (to) no end, exist only due to imitation; they can’t be explained with the compositional syntax and semantics that the rest of language follows.  For instance, there is no grammar rule in English that explains why the bigger, the better means what we all perceive it to mean. It makes no sense to deride imitation in language, since it’s the central force in language’s continued existence.

Furthermore, what language does Fiske think he is examining?  Because in (American) English, it seems that to no end is perfectly acceptable, somewhat more common than the to-less variant, and emerged contemporaneously with the variant a little over a century ago.  With regards to the current usage, “pleased me to no end” has 6600 Google hits, while “pleased me no end” has 700.  I’d hoped to establish the claim of contemporaneous emergence using Google Books, but the problem is that it’s really hard to find good old examples of this idiom, in either of its forms.  When you do, there’s the further matter that the idiom can have different meanings, especially when someone says something like:

(2) […] don’t lave me here near this villain that’s afther cursing me to no end

Does to no end here mean “ceaselessly” or “for no purpose”? Context, in the form of the two pages before and after, do not help.  I still can’t tell you which meaning is intended in (2), and I’ve been thinking about it off and on for a day.  Let me tell you what I do have. I can’t find a single example of no end meaning “ceaselessly” or “incessantly”, or “strongly” in Google Books before 1844. (I searched for “me no end“, “him no end“, and “her no end“.) After 1844, the number of hits becomes too cumbersome to sort through. I haven’t got the time to go to all that bother just to find out if prescriptivists are morons, as we already know the answer to that one from previous investigations.  But I did find a usage of to no end from 1874:

(3) Only when he saw a rich fellow, he would make up to him, and cringe, and fall down and worship him to no end.

Now, if to no end is the bastardization, then no end would have to have been the received usage before to no end showed up; if the two forms appeared at the same time, then there’s no reason why one should be considered the proper version.  I can find no evidence that no end preceded to no end.  So I thrust the burden of proof upon the prescriptivists. Show us that to no end is wrong!  Show us that it is a bastardization, and show us that this is a problem!  (After all, it’d be a 135-year-old bastardization, and who really cares about lineage that far back?)  Until then, the 1.3 million webpages containing “to no end” and I will be here waiting, the prescriptivists’ incessant and ill-informed blathering perplexing us to no end.

And, by the way, let’s do an informal poll.  Do you use either or both of these idioms?  What is standard in your idiolect?  Does one of these idioms set your teeth on edge? Is my to-requirement another piece of evidence establishing that despite my aspirations and affectations I remain inescapably prole?  Thanks for your help!

Summary: Some people actually argue that “to no end” is an improper bastardization of “no end”, and more oddly, that this matters to our lives.  There is no evidence that one is a bastardization of the other, and they’ve both been attested for more than a century. Complaints about such trifling matters serve only to turn people off from the beauty of language and reveal the niggling nature of many prescriptivists.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

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I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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