The Grammarphobia Blog

An extended meaning?

Q: I’m not much of a stickler. I believe that language is (and should be) a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing. But I’m bothered by a malapropism that I hear all the time: the use of “to the extent that” to mean “to the effect that,” as in “He said something to the extent that he did not accept her point of view.” Do you agree?

A: Yes, I’m with you. It’s definitely incorrect to use “to the extent that” in place of “to the effect that.” But this may not precisely be a malapropism, which is mixing up two similar-sounding words with an unintentionally comic result.

An example of a malapropism (from The Sopranos) is saying someone is “prostate with grief” instead of “prostrate with grief.” For more on malapropisms, check out my Jan. 2, 2007, blog item.

The noun “extent” dates back to the late 13th century. For the first few hundred years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to the value of land, taxes on that land, rent from it, or the seizure of land to pay debts.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1600) in which Duke Frederick uses the word “extent” for the seizure of land:

More villain thou. Well, push him out of doors;
And let my officers of such a nature
Make an extent upon his house and lands.
Do this expediently and turn him going.

By the 16th century, though, we find the word also being used to mean the degree to which something happens, exists, occupies space, or is understood, according to various citations in the OED.

Here’s an example from a 1533 medical book: “An appetite to eate or drynke mylke, to the extent that it shal not arise or abraied in the stomake.”

The expression “to the effect that” has been used since the late 14th century to refer to a result or purpose or meaning.

In The Canterbury Tales, for example, Chaucer writes: “Wherfore I pray yow, lat mercy been in youre herte, to th’ effect and entente that God almighty have mercy on yow in his laste juggement.”

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