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shameless pleading

Intensive Purposes

Might as well throw in the trowel.

Dear Word Detective: I have been having an ongoing argument with a dear friend about the phrase “for all intents and purposes,” which she swears to the death is “for all intensive purposes,” and says I sound like a ninny when I say it wrong. Can you figure out how this phrase crept into common usage and help us settle this dispute? — Collectively Confused in Columbus.

I guess this column isn’t as effective a deterrent to silliness as I had hoped, because I actually answered a question about “to all intensive purposes” about ten years ago, and yet here we are again. You are, of course, correct, and not at all a ninny, at least on this question. The phrase is indeed “for all intents and purposes,” meaning “for all practical purposes” or “in any reasonably likely circumstance” (“After Bob punched his boss, his career at the firm was, for all intents and purposes, kaput”). “For all intents and purposes” has been around since at least 1546 (in the form “to all intents, constructions, and purposes” contained in a law decreed that year by Henry VIII).

The mangled form “for all intensive purposes” has been “spotted in the wild” in print (and noted by linguists) at least since the 1980s, although, as an error in speech, it may have been around much longer. “For all intensive purposes” is a classic “eggcorn,” a re-shaping of a word or phrase that, far from being a simple error, has flourished and persisted because it actually makes a certain amount of sense. The term “eggcorn” itself was coined in 2003 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum when someone online was noticed typing “eggcorn” instead of “acorn.” It was, of course, an error, but an acorn is indeed rather egg-shaped, and is a seed, as is corn, so if one has heard “acorn,” but never seen the word in print, writing it as “eggcorn” is not entirely crazy.

Similarly, “for all intensive purposes” might be defended as logical if “intensive” were interpreted to mean “serious, realistic, or practical,” making the phrase equivalent to “when push comes to shove” (“Smith is a decent hitter, but for all intensive purposes, he’ll be useless in the playoffs”). It’s still “wrong” in that it mangles a long-established English idiom, but it’s not as far off the beam as “The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind” or “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

As to how “intensive purposes” crept into common usage, I think it’s significant that the 1980s also saw the proliferation of “intensive care units” in hospitals and the ensuing use of “intensive” to sell everything from skin lotion to motor oil. Given that “intents and purposes” has a distinctly archaic ring to it, and that “intents” is more rarely used than “aims” or “goals” today, and “intensive” seems like a logical interpretation to folks who have only heard (and never read) the proper form of the phrase.

15 comments to Intensive Purposes

  • Stan

    a student once wrote: it’s a doggy dog world.
    ranks right up there with “for all intensive purposes”!

  • cWJ

    See the above link, Stan. Perhaps your student performed an allusion more complex than you realize.. ;)

  • Beye Fyfe

    One of my favorits was written by a WAC who was asked on a questionnaire to comment on the food at the base where she was stationed: “The food in the mess hall is alright, but some of it is left to be desired.”

  • Manuel Bettencourt

    Interesting. My ex-wife thought it was a “doggy-dog” world (N of Pittsburg, c1970) and I, in my younger days (1960s, Georgia)) thought, for all intents and purposes, it was “for all intensive purposes.”

  • I thought it was “for all intent and purpose” in other words what it was intended for and for it’s purpose… ??

    • Mark Henderson

      Ouch. Not only the incorrect “for all intents and purposes”, but also the wrong form of “its”. Another thorn in the side of any English teacher. “It’s” is short for “it is”. The possessive form of “it” is “its” with NO apostrophe. So, here you should use “and for its purpose…??”

  • Lance

    @Wanda Mahoney:
    The word “all” is the main clue. The English language won’t permit “all intent” any more than “all person”.

  • Lance

    We repeat what we think we hear, just as someone once thought he heard “I could care less”, because the “couldn’t” wasn’t clearly spoken.

  • Lance

    Obviously, if we care not at all, we are at the bottom of the caring pole, so we cannot care less.

  • Chris

    My English teacher told me that “I couldn’t care less” was incorrect because it is a double negative, the ‘not’ and ‘less’, and although the phrase “I could care less” doesn’t literally mean what one thinks one is saying it is still the correct version of the phrase.

  • Justin

    You’re English teacher wuzn’t not wrong.

  • Justin

    And a “Doggy Dog World” is only acceptable if you are quoting Snoop-Dog.

  • joe

    Notwithstanding the origin, what is wrong with saying:” intensive purpose”?

    e.g ” Bad publicity did not help his case, but it was the intensive purpose of his opposition to remove him from office.”

    I, and others, have used “intensive purpose” (not ALL intensive purposes) to show urgency, focus and singular commitment to a specific objective.

  • Zoele

    There’s nothing wrong with “There’s a bathroom on the right”.

    “There’s” is a contraction of “there is”

    Maybe you’re thinking of “theirs”?

    Who does this gun belong to? “It belongs to them” or “It is theirs”

  • Zoele

    And to actually comment, “intensive purposes” is better than “intents and purposes”. “Intent” can be used to describe an uncountable or countable amount of intent. Contrary to popular belief it is not the same with the word “purpose”. The other interesting factor here is that purpose and intent can generally refer to the same thing. So while the the word “intents” is wholly fine in this saying “intent” is actually better. Therfore: “for all intent and purpose” or “for all intent and purposes”. Once you refer something being used “for all intent” or “for all intents” its final eventual usage is more often than not referred to in a singular usage. For example a gun can have an intended purpose of shooting targets and another intended purpose of simply making a loud sound. Or we can say that a gun has an intended purpose of shooting targets and making loud sounds. In a way, though it has 2 purposes, it can be written to have a singular complex purpose.

    In the end:
    “for all intent and purpose”,
    “for all intents and purpose”,
    “for all intent and purposes”,
    “for all intents and purposes”
    are, for all intensive purposes,
    equivalent to the phrase “for all intensive purposes”.

    Speaking of intents and purposes, they can both generally refer to the same thing:
    “So what is everyone who disagrees with you doing right now?!”
    “One of them is holding a gun and is pointing it at me! His purpose for doing this is to shoot me!” or “One of them is holding a gun and is pointing it at me! His intent is to shoot me!”

    “Intensive” describes the grandness of situations that the word is applied to.

    The actual modern and broader saying is “for all major purposes”. You can essentially see the synonymous relationship between “intensive” and “major” in this example.

    The funny part is that “for all intensive purposes” makes perfect sense. In other words “for any purpose that the thing in question would applied with great focus, care and-or thoroughness, seriousness etc.”

    Archaic sayings are on their way out as a result of these specifics either way and “intensive purposes” has been used in many more situations for much longer than since the 1980s.

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