Be at a loose end

Here’s another great example of BrE & AmE. Lloyd says “at a loose end” but in the US we say “at loose ends.” I wonder how differences lượt thích that happened.


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IntermarkLS) April 18, 2020Reading that, I first thought "I think that"s a mark of my Britification—the singular is probably what I"d say now." I then wasted some time searching things I"d written (on Twitter, on this blog, on my hard drive) that used the expression, và found none. What else are lockdown Sunday mornings for?But then I thought more and thought "But vì at a loose over & at loose ends always mean the same lớn me?"
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Loose ends, of course, need lớn be metaphorically tied. Both Englishes talk about, say, a project having loose ends, which need lớn be tied off or tied together lớn give us something finished—that won"t unravel. Here I"m just interested in the at
expression, which has more particular uses, and in which the metaphor gets a little more buried. No one says I"m at loose ends, so I"m going to tie them or I"m at a loose over, so I"m going to lớn tie it/myself up. Maybe when you"re at a loose over, you can get the image of hanging idly, or when you"re at loose ends you have sầu a sense that you have sầu "ends" that you don"t know what lớn bởi vì with. The Collins Dictionary trang web can be useful for looking into such things as it has a whole bunch of dictionaries together: the Collins COBUILD (meant for English learners, BrE-based but more apt to cover American variants), Collins English Dictionary (which is BrE-based), and Webster"s New World Dictionary (WNW; AmE-based). COBUILD presents at a loose over as a feeling of boredom, & simply states that at loose ends is the American equivalent. (Collins English Dictionary defines it as "without purpose or occupation".)Where Collins has one definition for the singular (and by extension, the plural) phrase, WNW gives three senses for the plural phrase:Now, all of those senses are very similar, & so this looks like a difference in lexicographical style—whether you lump similar uses together or split them inkhổng lồ definitions that describe more specific situations where the phrase is used. The Collins "without purpose or occupation" could be mapped onto senses 2 ("without anything definite to do") and 3 ("unemployed") in WNW. It"s the "unsettled, disorganized" bit that feels a bit different from COBUILD"s "bored". What"s unclear from that definition is whether it"s people or situations that are unsettled & disorganized—that is, "I am at loose ends" versus "We left the project at loose ends". So, I had a little look in the GloWBE corpus, lớn see if I could find differences in how the singular phrase is used in BrE (42 unique usable examples) versus the plural phrase in AmE (20). There are few enough of these that I can look at all the examples. (The four "AmE" examples for the singular phrase were actually from British sources, so I won"t consider them.)All of the examples in both countries are talking about people, rather than situations. Some seem to lớn be in the "disorganized, confused" sense—and I had khổng lồ wonder in some of these cases if the writer was thinking of the phrase at wit"s end. These "confused" examples were there in small numbers in both countries, so it is looking like the expressions really are equivalent in AmE and BrE, it"s just a matter of different dictionaries splitting the senses more or less. BrE source: any advice will help as lặng at a loose end surely there is something i can vị lớn sort this out???AmE source: As a former (public school) teacher I was at loose ends how to lớn educate my daughter (in context, this meant: didn"t know which choice to make)Otherwise, most of the examples in both places signify "having nothing particular khổng lồ do" or "idle".Merriam-Webster, another US dictionary, gives only one definition, which seems khổng lồ combine all three of WNW"s senses, và makes it clearer that this expression is used of people, rather than of their situations:USnot knowing what to lớn bởi : not having anything in particular khổng lồ bởi vì But I found two things in the data interesting:1.

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As someone with both phrases in my repertoire, I felt like I"d have sầu khổng lồ use the plural with a plural subject. That is, I may be at a loose over, but my friends would be at loose ends, because they each have sầu their own loose end. The data had five sầu British plural at loose ends and 3 of those had plural subjects, but the BrE singular at a loose kết thúc was also used with plural subjects. This might be lượt thích collective noun agreement, in that the BrE speaker might be considering the semantic number more than the grammatical number: we are at loose ends if we"re separately loose, but we are at a loose end, if we"re reacting lớn a singular situation. That said, I don"t think the data really show this in most cases. In the first example below, we get a BrE plural verb with a grammatically singular (BrE) football club name, but their loose kết thúc is singular. (lưu ý that the collective sầu plural in BrE isn"t as semantically driven as some people—even me in the linked-to blog post—claim. I discuss that in chapter 6 of The Prodigal Tongue.)BrE singular end, plural subject:AC Mill Hill were at a loose end and started to lớn play the hopeful long balls. BrE plural ends, plural subject:tens of thousands of men with military training are put at loose ends each year2. AmE has a few examples of at loose ends with self, which seems khổng lồ have sầu a particular sense of feeling "lost" và "purposeless". BrE doesn"t seem to lớn have sầu at a loose over with: AmE: Years ago I had a client who always seemed to lớn be at loose ends with himself. None of this has addressed Thomas"s question "why?" "What"s the difference?" questions are answerable. "Why bởi vì they differ" questions are often not, both because the evidence is not available và because change in idioms is rarely a simple straight line. Things that change don"t simply change once, they change thousands of times in small and diverse ways before they arrive somewhere else. The thing to keep in mind here is that things had loose ends centuries before people did. People were talking about loose ends in other kinds of contexts, so if the expression as applied to lớn people started in the singular (& it probably did), then it would be unsurprising if the plural (about things) noun phrase (loose ends) affected the singular (about people) prepositional phrase (at a loose end). When I searched for the at phrases in Google Books, there were lots of loose ends in the early 1800s, but the OED only notices the "idle person" meaning from the 1850s onward. So, I put an am in front of the at in my searches (in order lớn make sure that the loose ends belonged to people) and got this (there are no British hits for am at loose ends). That seems to lớn confirm that the plural expression came later, with the singular having some presence in AmE, then falling out in the first half of the 20th century:But the other thing to note about origins is that the phrase was not originally at a loose end in BrE either. The at took a long time to lớn settle down. Early examples in the OED have after a loose over on a loose end, and the OED also notes another expression from more than 100 years earlier than at a loose end: at the loose hand.

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