Every once in a while even I, the Grammar Hammer, must admit when I am wrong. Suffice it to say, I am confident in my use of “in spite of” and I can properly “beg a question.” So, for all intensive purposes…
This one hit me squarely in the face last week and I was shocked that no one had ever corrected me. Now that I know, I am forced to come clean and profess that I’ve been using the phrase “for all intents and purposes” incorrectly for years. Mea culpa.
In my defense, there’s a good reason that this phrase gets garbled so easily.
The idiom, which actually originates as “to all intents and purposes,” dates back to the 1500s when it was first recorded in an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII. As a quick history lesson, King Henry VIII was given the power to legislate by proclamation in 1539. Basically, if you didn’t agree with what King Henry proclaimed as law, you probably found yourself at the short end of a noose, or with a date with the executioner.
From the 16th century to the 21st century, the phrase has evolved from “to all intents and purposes” to the more common “for all intents and purposes.” When phrases like this get muddled, it’s usually traced back to some internet reference. However, this one goes as far back to about 1870 when it was published in an article in The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette:
“He has never had a representative in Congress nor in the State Legislature nor in any municipal office, and to all intensive purposes, politically speaking, he might have well have been dead.”
Linguistically, “for all intensive purposes” is called an “eggcorn.” That’s when a phrase has a meaning that is different from the original intended phrase, but plausible in the same context (think “old-timer’s disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease”). The difference between an eggcorn and a pun is that a pun is intended by the writer (or speaker) to have a comic effect, whereas with an eggcorn, the writer or speaker is unaware of the mistake. The more you know…
Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire, and for all intents and purposes, reasonably good with grammar.