Everyone has that word or phrase that makes them cringe. For normal people, it’s icky words such as moist or vomit, but for grammar nerds, it’s when people mistake a perfectly good phrase like “for all intents and purposes” as something else (“for all intensive purposes.”) Before you argue with said grammar nerd about how the second version is superior, you should probably know that they’re right (sorry), and that “for all intents and purposes” has always been the correct way to say the expression.
Like most confusing parts of our modern life, it all started with lawyers. “For all intents and purposes” comes from the 16th-century English legal phrase “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.” It means “in every functional purpose” and helps lawyers cover their bases in legal agreements.
For example, if construction is finished on a building “for all intents and purposes,” then the building is technically okay to live in — but it might be missing some important parts that you would likely miss (such as a toilet or electricity). Two people being married “for all intents and purposes” might look good on paper, but may just end up being a bad excuse for cheating on your spouse, because you’re only technically married.
Why refer to both “intents” and “purposes”? Is there even a difference between these words? Not really, but there’s a reason for it. “For all intents and purposes” is an example of tautology, which is an intentionally redundant phrase.
It’s also an example of a legal doublet, which comes from the early days of English in which multiple languages were coming together. Intent is derived from the Latin intentio (meaning “reason”) and purpose comes from the Old French porpos (also meaning “reason”). By including both terms in legal documents, lawyers could be absolutely sure that all readers, whether they knew Latin, French or English, would understand their limited liability. (Even Medieval lawyers were crafty.)
As unwieldy as “for all intents and purposes” is, it’s actually quite helpful even outside of legalese. You can use it in everyday situations — especially when you need to be a little sneaky.
For all intents and purposes, I agree with you.
Meaning: I sort of agree with your main point, but now I’m about to destroy your argument.
I’ve finished up all my chores, for all intents and purposes.
Meaning: My room is clean, but don’t look under my bed.
This car runs great, for all intents and purposes.
Meaning: It’ll get you where you need to go, but don’t expect the air conditioning or brake lights to work.
For all intents and purposes, Jane was home by her 12:00 curfew.
Meaning: Jane was pulling into her driveway at breakneck speed as soon as the clock struck midnight.
I'm a good fit for my job, for all intents and purposes.
Meaning: I can do maybe 50% of my job and am winging the rest.
If you like the idea of blurring details but don’t love how “for all intents and purposes” sounds, try out these adverbs that can modify an entire sentence. Essentially, they all mean “the basic idea is here, but don’t look too closely.”
in most respects
If you’ve been using “for all intensive purposes” up to this very minute, it’s not too late to stop (but please stop.) Like “pass mustard” instead of “pass muster” and “old wise tale” instead of “old wives’ tale,” this version of “for all intents and purposes” is an eggcorn — a phrase that sounds right but definitely isn’t.
People who speak quickly may be able to throw in “for all intensive purposes” once or twice in conversation without too many raised eyebrows. But don’t make it a habit, because there are grammar nerds everywhere who would love nothing more than to say “Actually …”
Many phrases and expressions like “for all intents and purposes” entered English for one reason and remained there for another. Learn more about the (not-so) complicated history of a few more everyday phrases, including: