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TWTS: All available uses of "avail"

We do things more often "to no avail" than "of no avail."

These constructions have been on our minds since a listener asked about the relationship between "to avail one's self" and "to no avail."

As it’s our habit to make ourselves available for such inquiries, we decided to take a closer look.

The verb form of "avail” goes back to the late 1300s in English. From there, it can be traced back to French. It can be used both intransitively, i.e. without an object, and transitively.

Historically, when this form of "avail" is used without an object, it's meant "to be of value" or "to be of use." For example, "The current measures will no longer avail."

As a transitive verb, "avail" also means "to be of use to" or "to be advantage to." The American Heritage Dictionary has this example: "Nothing could avail the sick patient."

The noun "avail" goes back to the 1400s and comes from the verb. It means "advantage" or "assistance." It's most often used in the phrases "of no avail, "to no avail" or "to little avail."

The preposition for this construction has historically been "of," as in "It was of no avail." However, around 1970 there's a crossover in frequency where "to no avail" becomes more common than "of no avail." Both constructions are out there, but you'll find that "to no avail" is used more frequently.

For those of you who use phrases like "to no avail," have you ever considered the relationship between "avail" and "available"? Many of us think of "available" as its own thing, but it breaks down as "able to be of avail” or "able to be of use."

In its original meaning, "available" meant "capable of producing a desired result." By the 1800s, it comes to mean "present" or "ready for use" which is how we use it now.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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