No End and To No End

By Maeve Maddox

A reader corrected my usage in the following extract from a previous post:

Suggesting that one form of speech is preferable to another, however, can annoy people no end.

The reader corrected this passage by inserting a to in front of “no end”

Suggesting that one form of speech is preferable to another, however, can annoy people to no end.

As I usually do, I assumed that the reader was right and I was wrong, so I launched into my usual double-checking routine: OED, Merriam-Webster, Chicago, etc.

I found my use of the expression mirrored in this citation in Merriam-Webster:

As they sailed further and further into the south, it got warmer and warmer. Polynesia, Chee-Chee, and the crocodile enjoyed the hot sun no end.—Hugh Lofting, Dr. Doolittle, 1920.

Although the online unabridged OED still labels the adverbial use of “no end” as “modern slang,” the citations are not particularly modern:

1912 Chambers’s Jrnl. Dec. 769/1: ‘I really must show this to Champneys,’ thought Michael; ‘it will please him no end.’

1955 Essays & Studies 8 5: A few clean strokes of Occam’s razor would have helped Mr. Jackson no end.

1958 H. Babcock I don’t want to shoot Elephant 8: I often walk fifteen miles a day while hunting…This puzzles my wife no end.

1970 New Yorker 3 Oct. 90/2: Thomas had been impressed no end by the sight of Klüver…fixing an art-and-technology malfunction with a pair of pliers.

The Oxford Dictionaries site defines “no end” as “to a great extent; very much” and gives this example: “This cheered me up no end.”

The debate surrounding “to no end” vs “no end” presents an idiomatic collision similar to that between “couldn’t care less” and “could care less.” The Web teems with heated attacks on the to-less version, yet millions of native English-speakers use it to mean the same thing as the one with to.

Here are some declarations I found in language forums on the Web from people who prefer “to no end”:

Dictionary or not, the grammar of [no end] is very manifestly lacking.

It [no end] doesn’t sound right to me, it sounds like you missed a word.

This Amuses me no end just sounds silly.

I found some objections to “no end” that were stated even more strongly, but I don’t use that kind of language in my posts.

“No end” has its supporters:

[No end] is an idiom. It is very common in most of the English-speaking world. The fact you haven’t come across it doesn’t make it wrong. 

Sounds fine to me. It’s pretty common where I’m from (south-east England).

Some supporters of “no end” argue that “to no end” means something else entirely:

To do something “to no end” commonly means “without purpose” or “in vain.” For example, “He gave her the roses to no particular end.” That’s the only meaning I can hear when reading a statement like “This amuses me to no end.”

This argument is plausible but old-fashioned. Modern speakers are more likely to use “in vain” or “no use” when that’s the intended meaning:

He gave her the roses, but it was no use. She still refused to date him.

Her father pleaded with her to accept the suitor, but his pleas were in vain.

I conclude the following:

Either form may be used with the meaning “to a great extent” in colloquial English.

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6 Responses to “No End and To No End”

  • Mister Furkles

    Perhaps anything after Milton is modern slang to the editors of the OED.

  • venqax

    Idioms are just that because they mean what people think they mean. Not that people can’t get them wrong, and ruin in the idiom. In this case, though, there doesn’t really seem to be any difference. “To no end” can mean, idiomatically, “without an end” as if No End were a figurative destination: nowhere. Compare “going nowhere, which is figurative as opposed to “not going anywhere” which is literal. OTOH, “to no end” meaning “to no purpose” is not idiomatic, but simply a literal statement.

    “Could” vs “couldn’t care less” is in a different, irregular bin of its own because “could care less” means exactly the opposite of what it pretends to (irregardless of its intent, that is.)

  • David Bartlett

    These are two different idioms, surely? ‘To no end’ means ‘in vain’ and ‘no end’ just means ‘a lot’. Simple as that.

  • Precise Edit

    @ Venqax
    Re. ‘Irregardless’-that’s funny (assuming you did that on purpse, of course).

  • venqax

    That was on purpose. Wish I could say that more often. It occupies that same means-the-opposite-of-what-is-intended bin with “could care less” and distinct from sarcasm where a literal meaning opposite to that intended is intentional.

    Being completely tangential, “falling head over heels” is an interesting though somewhat different case, too. Isn’t head-over-heels the normal state of construction for someone not falling?

  • Glenn

    Wow. Firstly you’re really gracious to assume that the reader is always right and you’re always wrong! Secondly, I side with the use-suggestion towards the end of your article that suggests ‘to no end’ carries the sense of ‘in vain’. Or to put it another way, my three-year-old motor-mouth daughter talks no end. Whereas my ten-year-old daughter thinks I speak to no end, regardless of the quantity of my speaking!

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