loose end

Thomas West was responsible for last week's post topic, and here he is again, having tweeted: Reading 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, and found none. What else are lockdown Sunday mornings for?

But then I thought more and thought "But do at a loose end and at loose ends always mean the same to me?"

Loose ends, of course, need to be metaphorically tied. Both Englishes talk about, say, a project having loose ends, which need to be tied off or tied together to 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 end, so I'm going to tie it/myself up. Maybe when you're at a loose end, you can get the image of hanging idly, or when you're at loose ends you have a sense that you have "ends" that you don't know what to do with.

The Collins Dictionary website 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 end as a feeling of boredom, and 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, and so this looks like a difference in lexicographical style—whether you lump similar uses together or split them into 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 and 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, to 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 be in the 'disorganized, confused' sense—and I had to wonder in some of these cases if the writer was thinking of the phrase at [someone's] 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 im at a loose end surely there is something i can do to sort this out??? 
  • AmE source: As a former (public school) teacher I was at loose ends how to 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 to do' or 'idle'.
Merriam-Webster, another US dictionary, gives only one definition, which seems to combine all three of WNW's senses, and makes it clearer that this expression is used of people, rather than of their situations: 
not knowing what to do : not having anything in particular to do 

But I found two things in the data interesting:
    1.  As someone with both phrases in my repertoire, I felt like I'd have to use the plural with a plural subject. That is, I [singular] may be at a loose end, but my friends [plural] would be at loose ends, because they each have their own loose end. The data had five British plural at loose ends and 3 of those had plural subjects, but the BrE singular at a loose end was also used with  plural subjects.  This might be like 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 to 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 end is singular.  (Note that the collective 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 play the hopeful long balls.
      • BrE plural ends, plural  subject:
        • tens of thousands of men with military training are put at loose ends each year
    2.  AmE has a few examples of at loose ends with [one]self, which seems to have a particular sense of feeling 'lost' and 'purposeless'. BrE doesn't seem to have at a loose end with:
      • AmE: Years ago I had a client who always seemed to be at loose ends with himself.

    None of this has addressed Thomas's question "why?"  "What's the difference?" questions are answerable. "Why do they differ" questions are often not, both because the evidence is not available and 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 people started in the singular (and 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 to 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 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 settle down. Early examples in the OED have after a loose end and 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.

    • 1742   R. North & M. North Life F. North 77   He was weary of being at the loose hand as to company.
    So perhaps the metaphor was originally one of idle hands rather than fraying rope? Is that why we don't talk about tying up our loose ends, because the expression didn't evolve from a nautical rope metaphor?  At any rate, as idioms evolve, they often influence each other and that could have happened here.


    1. But we waaaant you to take us through your thought processes! Condensed versions are for journal articles and books where there are fixed page limits, and of course for Twitter. De te fabula narratur, and that's why people read blog posts.

      So please don't feel that you have to apologize for length ("for I had not time to make it short"). We want to see not only what you think, but how you got there.

      1. Well, you do, but the fact that it's been up for hours and has only one comment might be evidence otherwise! ;)

      2. Though I do take the point that the apology undermines it. Maybe I should remove it...

    2. It had never occurred to me before reading this that 'to tie up the loose ends' and 'to be at a loose end' might be connected.
      Up until now, for me (50s, British), they have been entirely unrelated expressions. I hadn't even registered that they sound similar.
      Thinking about it now, the metaphor in the first is clear, but in the second it is not, so I'm attracted by the idea that it is actually a corruption of 'a loose hand'.

      1. I absolutely agree - "tying up loose ends" and "being at a loose end" are two different phrases referring to two different things, and I don't think I'd ever connected them before, either. And I have not, until now, come across the American "at loose ends" - perhaps my American friends never are?

    3. I'm 70, never lived outside of Texas, and for me "at loose ends" always means "confused to the point that I can't untangle it." I don't think "at a loose end" is in my vocabulary, but I think if I've ever used it, I was thinking that I'd got almost to a dead end, but I thought I'e eventually find a way through it. And I'm kind of a 1-trick pony; I don't think I have any alternatives to these meanings.

      But I *do* enjoy your "long form." My first introduction to anything resembling linguistics was horrifying and I barely survived it, but for a couple of decades now I've wished I'd made it my career--this stuff fascinates me.

      1. Well, this is perplexing. As a 64-year-old American who grew up in St. Louis and on Long Island (New York), "at loose ends" has the exact meaning Lynne quotes from Merriam-Webster: "not knowing what to do : not having anything in particular to do". One of the meanings Collins attributes to American English, "in an unsettled, disorganized, or confused condition" is one I can't claim ever to have used or considered. So now I'm wondering if there are regional variations for the meaning in American English.

    4. I'm over 70, Scottish but resident in Italy for, oh, yonks (now there's one to investigate...), a historical linguist by profession. I have never said nor would ever say "at loose ends"; I recognise that I've been aware of it for many years and always thought of it as US English. I tend to think of it as meaning "I don't know what to do with myself".

    5. For me (British English speaker, West Midlands) the difference between 'at a loose end' and 'at loose ends' with a plural subject feels less like collective noun agreement, and more like variable singular/plural usage with items where every individual has (at least) one, like body parts - 'almost everybody raised their hand(s)' - with no real difference in meaning.

      Possibly not quite on topic, but the 'put at loose ends' example sounds really odd to me. 'Left at loose ends' works, but not 'put'.

    6. Would it help at all if I pointed out that 'yonks' is a collapsed version of years, months and weeks? I've always thought that was the origin, although I see Chambers has "Origin unknown".

      1. Hmm ... this was supposed to be a reply to RAH's aside.

      2. That looks like the kind of fanciful etymology that has more wishful thinking behind it than evidence. OED also says 'unknown', but others (and I'd be with them) think it comes from 'donkey's years'.

      3. Since there is not the slightest shred of evidence (that I am aware of) for my proposition, I think what you say cannot help bu be true, Lynne. Otoh, is there evidence for the 'donkey' hypothesis?

    7. Lynne, it's a shame some of the dates to the right of the diagram are cut off. I can see the first is 2012, but the others are both just 201[?].

      1. They are all 2012—but that is part of the name of the corpora searched, rather than the actual date of the data.

    8. Speaking AmE as I do, I don't have "at a loose end" in my phrasebook. I mean I suppose I could construct the phrase in the context of embroidery or macrame, but it would be literal, not metaphorical: "I always have to worry about a knot showing up at a loose end."

      And now this comment will add just a bit more noise to some future linguist's analysis. I live to serve. 8-)

    9. BrE speaker. Sorry to g off topic, but I notice you use the phrase “a whole bunch of”. I don’t believe this is how most Brits would use either”whole” or “bunch”. In particular, we would talk about a bunch of flowers, grapes, bananas (coconuts I suspect only in the song), but not much else I can think of. The hair arrangement is always bunches, never a bunch. And if you have a whole bunch, can you have part of a bunch? Half a bunch of flowers us still a bunch. Something for a future post?

      1. I'm a BrE speaker in my 50s, and I have heard and used the expression "a whole bunch of" in exactly the way Lynne uses it (meaning "lots") for most of my life. It has an informal, slangy feel to it, though, and I can't imagine my parents saying it, which suggests to me that it may have come into the language in the 1970s or 1980s.


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    AmE = American English
    BrE = British English
    OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)