I am currently reading this article, and there is a paragraph saying,

Despite apparel and home goods companies doing their best to assure Wall Street this earnings season they are working hard to mitigate the tariff impact — by shifting production outside of China and taking price increases — investors in the space remain very nervous on the bottom line impact. The outcome of the holiday season for many retailers truly hang in the balance on whether they can mitigate tariffs to a material extent (if at all).

Would the last phrase, "if at all", mean in this context, "to the fullest extent"?

Or is the phrase modifying this line,

whether they can mitigate tariffs


2 Answers 2


Maybe I put too much emphasis on the "unlikely" part. So, to avoid confusion, if at all, I expanded my answer a little.

In general, it means the action referred to is unlikely to happen or doesn't need to happen, although it can.

As for the questioned sentence, it means "if they can at all". It implies that the writer does not think that they are likely to succeed in mitigating the tariffs to a material extent. Let me rephrase again:

They are unlikely to mitigate tariffs to a material extent, but if they do, then they may have an effect on the outcome of the holiday season.

Another example:

Meat was available once a week, if at all (i.e. if we could get meat at all).

This can be rephrased as:

We could hardly get any meat, but if we did, we could only get meat once a week.

Another one (suggested by the other answer):

He can only walk a short distance, if at all (i.e. if he can walk at all).

Rephrased version:

He doesn't seem to be able to walk, but if he does, he can only walk a short distance.

An example with the "doesn't need to happen" meaning:

What you do in that situation, if at all, should be done with great caution.

Rephrased version:

You don't need to do anything in that situation, but if you do anything at all, do it with great caution.

  • Thanks! I think short-phrase was one of the most difficult context to ever have read.
    – user17814
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 14:28
  • 1
    It will become clear once you expand it into a complete sentence. The key is to find what to fill in the blank with. There are more examples of this type, such as "if possible = if that is possible at all" or "if any = if there is any at all".
    – trisct
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 14:42

It's badly written.

There should be a new sentence starting "Investors..."
The outcome (singular) ...HANGS. The outcomes (plural) HANG.
How can anything hang in the balance ON something? Either it's hanging or it's standing!
I'm sorry you need to read such awful English.

To answer your question, the last line means:

Retailers may be able to mitigate the tariffs to some extent, OR THEY MAY NOT.

A simpler example:

He can only walk a short distance if at all
He may be able to walk a short distance, but he may not be able to walk at all.

  • Is there a difference between our answers, besides the apparent wording difference? The op seems to be confused.
    – trisct
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 15:04
  • @trisct No - I don't think they're different :-) Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 15:54
  • @Kentaro Tomono BOTH answers are correct! Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 15:58
  • @OldBrixtonian I am completely fully aware that you are the winner too, but very very unfortunately with apology that I can not choose 2 answers at that same time, but your valuable answer shines like a beam of light to me as shiny as trisct's. Sorry.
    – user17814
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 19:49
  • @Kentaro Tomono I really didn't want to win :-) I thought you thought our answers were different, and that you had to choose which one was correct. No apology needed! By the way, trisct's beam of light is like a beacon or a lighthouse compared with my soggy glow-worm! Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 20:16

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