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I realize I don't know the difference between "guess something" and "guess at something". I really don't understand why anyone would use "guess at something" instead of "guess something"?

1- John began to talk but she guessed at his intention and interrupted him.

2- John began to talk but she guessed his intention and interrupted him.

3- There are no photographs of him, so we can only guess at what he looked like.

4- There are no photographs of him, so we can only guess what he looked like.

5- Can you guess at his age?

6- Can you guess his age?

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Some English verbs can take "at" plus their usual object. This "at" roughly means that it is not possible to observe that anything was achieved by the action. Some examples:

  • The puppy is pulling the blanket could mean the blanket is moving along with the puppy
  • The puppy is pulling at the blanket could mean the puppy is not managing to get the blanket to move

or

  • Your dog bit my leg could mean that my leg is now harmed

  • Your dog bit at my leg could mean that the dog tried to put his jaws around my leg but thankfully, only managed to frighten me or damage my trousers. But my leg is unharmed

or

  • he punched me definitely means I got punched
  • he punched at me he was unable to make an impact

Your examples with "guess" are similar. "Guess", on its own, often means guess correctly (but not always! And not explicitly!). "Guess at" is much more likely to mean something like "guess, but wrongly" or "guess, but never know for sure".

  • Hmm I think "shoot" and "shoot at" are similiar too? – Talha Özden Apr 23 at 13:43
  • @TalhaÖzden absolutely! And there are many other examples. But not all verbs are like this. – Wilson Apr 23 at 13:46
  • So as far as I understand, I can use them interchangeably in some contexts? For instance: I am going to guess his name. (I don't know his name. I will just try without being sure) – Talha Özden Apr 23 at 14:04
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    Correct, "shoot" almost always means the shot is a hit. "Shoot at" only indicates the direction someone aims. In most cases "guess" and "guess at" are interchangeable. "Guess" sometimes implies accuracy, while "guess at" very clearly indicates an attempt regardless of accuracy. – Alsee Apr 23 at 14:13
  • @TalhaÖzden Yes. In some of your examples they mean almost the same. In other examples they're very different. Alsee has written clearly about that. "I am going to guess his name" is very similar in nature to your other example, "Can you guess his age?" – Wilson Apr 23 at 14:14
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1- John began to talk but she guessed at his intention and interrupted him.

2- John began to talk but she guessed his intention and interrupted him.

Number one does not suggest anything about whether the guess was correct or not. Number two strongly suggests that her guess was correct.

3- There are no photographs of him, so we can only guess at what he looked like.

4- There are no photographs of him, so we can only guess what he looked like.

These are pretty equal. Number three puts a little more emphasis on the fact that we are guessing in a general direction..... with an obvious implication that it's an extremely vague and inaccurate direction.

5- Can you guess at his age?

6- Can you guess his age?

Number 5 very clearly invites someone to take a guess, even if it is a wildly bad guess. Number 6 could mean the same as number 5, but there's a suggestion of asking whether you can guess it reasonably accurately. It's easier to treat number 6 as a yes/no question than number 5, such as "No, I have no idea how old he is".

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