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By all means

Posted by R. Berg on June 25, 2007

In Reply to: By all means posted by Smokey Stover on June 25, 2007

: : : I still have not been able to figure out the real meaning of the phrase "by all means". What I want to know is that would it be wrong to use it in a context like "You are insane by all means." Would not this sentence imply that the person is certainly insane without a doubt, that the person is insane in every way?

: : Insane without a doubt, yes. Insane in every way, no. "By all means" is a set phrase that means "Certainly!" This phrase is used to make a point more strongly. It expresses the speaker's confidence in the statement it accompanies. It isn't to be taken literally, as meaning "by all methods." Its opposites, "not by any means" and "by no means," are ways of emphasizing a negative assertion. "You are not insane by any means" = "You are far from insane." ~rb

: Ms. Berg is quite right, but I'd like to add that "You are insane by all means" is just not idiomatic English. One would not hear that said. An impolite person might say, "You are insane by any standard," but not "by all means," which conveys agreement. "Would you like to go there with me?" "Let's go, by all means." This element of agreement is, of course, not conveyed by "by no means" or "[not] by any means." In using these expressions it is probably good to remember that they have a lingering association with "means" as way or method (or instrument or agency).
: SS

Smokey's addendum inspires further comments to clarify how "by all means" is used. The whole phrase is a lump dropped into a sentence. Think of it as a unit, not as three separate words. In the original sample sentence, you really need a comma: "You are insane, by all means." "By all means" doesn't just modify "insane." It modifies (and intensifies) the statement that the person is insane. One can just as well write "By all means, you are insane."

Friends who joke with each other might have the following conversation:
"Why did I agree to work overtime this weekend? I must be insane."
"By all means, you're insane" (said smiling).

"By no means" expresses agreement with a negative assertion or gives a negative answer to a question.
"Do you want your taxes raised?"
"By no means!"

Of course, "by all means" CAN be used literally - "The detective intended to seek the perpetrator by all means possible" - but this isn't the kind of use the query asks about. ~rb