Student Stumper 45: Do “whatsoever” and “at all” have the same meaning?

QUESTION: Do whatsoever and at all have the same meaning?

SHORT ANSWER: They can often be used interchangeably, so that suggests they have the same meaning. It might be more accurate to say we often use these words the same way. Both whatsoever and at all allow us to emphasize a negative statement.

LONG ANSWER: This question is at first glance easy to answer. I can quickly think of example sentences where either word choice works:

  • He did nothing at all to help.
  • He did nothing whatsoever to help.
  • They didn’t find any evidence at all.
  • They didn’t find any evidence whatsoever.
  • We’ve had no complaints at all.
  • We’ve had no complaints whatsoever.

Personally, I’d give preference to the the sentences with at all. They sound more natural to my ears. Why? I can’t confirm with the help of any dictionary which is the more preferred word choice. However, a search in the Corpus of Contemporary English for whatsoever produced only 4,514 instances, whereas a search for at all gave me a list of 72,047 instances. Doesn’t that tell us something about frequency? So it seems the first difference in usage is that at all is the more frequent word choice. Furthermore, at all has broader usage across contexts: academic, fiction, news, and spoken. Whatsoever seems more limited to spoken contexts.

Second, at all seems to have broader use in terms of sentence structure. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English lists whatsoever as an adverb that is used for emphasis in negative statements. In contrast, LDCE states that at all is used in both statements and questions. In addition, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and written English explains how at all, like other non-assertive forms (yet, ever, either, etc.), is used with negation, but isn’t limited to structures with no and not (176).

  • Did he do anything at all to help?
  • You can choose any color at all.

Reading these last two examples with whatsoever seems more forced and less natural. Do you agree? At all is still being used for emphasis, but the sentences aren’t negative and the meaning is more flexible: Did he do anything at all to help? means Did he do anything in any way to help? / You can choose any color at all means You can choose any color of any kind.

A final difference appears in word order.

  1. In almost all the examples I found, whatsoever followed a noun or pronoun: no reason whatsoever, no money whatsoever, nothing whatsoever, etc.
  2. At all can follow an adverb. We can say none at all or none whatsoever. But we can only say not at all. Consider another example: You can go anywhere at all, meaning anywhere you like. In this example, at all isn’t interchangeable with whatsoever.
  3. At all can appear before or after an adjective: The performance wasn’t at all interesting. / I wasn’t bored at all. The meaning of at all in these examples is not in any way. Could we replace at all with whatsoever here? I wouldn’t.

So my conclusion is that at all and whatsoever have basically the same meaning, and their use overlaps when we make negative statements. However, at all is used more frequently partly because it has more flexibility.

 

Sources:

Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Corpus of Contemporary English

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

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