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I notice that the preposition "at" seems to mean "try to do something" and we don't know if it succeeds or not.

For example,

"he shot the cat": the cat is dead or injured

"he shot at the cat": we are not sure the bullet hit the cat or not

"he grabbed her hand": her hand was in his hands

"he grabbed at her hand": we are not sure if he succeeds

But I am not sure if that can be applied for many other verbs, for example,

"the bird pecked my hand" vs "the bird pecked at my hand"

"he bit my hand" vs "he bit at my hand"

"he is sipping tea" vs "he is sipping at tea"

etc

4 Answers 4

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Combining a verb with "at" in examples like shoot at something, peck at something, kick at something is called the conative construction. The meaning changes slightly if "at" is omitted.

This "at" can indicate repetition or potential lack of completion of an action.

  • Shooting at a bird means aiming at a bird and shooting, but shooting a bird means shooting at and hitting the bird.
  • He sipped at the tea suggests that he took individual sips of the tea over a period of time, rather than drinking it all at once (and may not have finished the whole cup).
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"At" does not always imply the goal of an action. Restricting its use for this purpose would be inappropriate.

Consider the MW.com entry for "at": https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/at. In addition to the goal of an action "at" has 6 other uses.

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Q. I notice that the preposition "at" seems to mean "try to do something" and we don't know if it succeeds or not.


Let's look at your examples

"he shot the cat": the cat is dead or injured BUT we are not sure if he meant to shoot the cat? -- "he shot at the cat": we are not sure the bullet hit the cat or not Correct but we do know "that he intended" to shoot the cat

"he grabbed her hand": her hand was in his hand However we do not know if he intended to grab her hand or arm or? -- "he grabbed at her hand": we are not sure if he succeeds Correct but we do know "he intended to" hold her hand

The bird and biting examples follow the same logic. However the "Tea one" does not work, it would have to be "at his tea".

A. A preposition is used as a relationship word. It is a word that can explain the place, time, or relationship of a sentence. Therefore in your examples it does not mean "try to do something." The use of "at" indicates the intended action and we are clear about what the intended action was. However the use of "at" coupled with the context of your examples does show what "I/He/They/It were trying to do"

intend; verb; to have as a plan or purpose


The Preposition "At"

So, the word at is a preposition. A preposition is, in a sense, a connector. When you use the word at in a sentence, you should notice that it smoothly connects the other words around it.

If the word "at" isn’t working as a connector, then it will most likely be working as an adverb. As such, rather than connect words it will modify one of the words in the sentence.

A preposition is a relationship word (hence a "connector"). It’s the sort of word that can explain the place, time, or relationship of a sentence, and link the words together. In the case of at, this preposition is commonly used to express specific location (e.g., “Joe is waiting at home”), specific time (e.g., “The appointment is at 9 P.M.”), or a specific point (e.g., “The progress meter is at 75 percent.”).

Correct Usage of "At" Believe it or not, there are just two points to remember about the use of prepositions like at.

Preposition Choice You need to choose the right preposition for each sentence, remember a preposition is a connector bringing the parts of the sentence together. A preposition like at is likely to follow certain words in order to make the relationship crystal clear between other words in the sentence (looking at, depends on, driving by).

Here’s an example sentence:

I am looking at him. In this example, you could only use the preposition at. Otherwise, the meaning of the sentence would be compromised and completely unclear. “I am looking from him” or “I am looking on him” would make no sense.

Position in a Sentence Next, consider how and where the preposition at is placed in a sentence, that is, a preposition must generally be followed by a noun or pronoun. The noun or pronoun counts as the object of the preposition. This can get a little tricky, but if you look at the above sentence again, you'll see what we mean:

I am looking at him. The analysis would go like so: the preposition at is followed by the pronoun him.

Ref Correct use of "at"

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  • look at this dictionary oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/at?q=at. It says "used after a verb to show that somebody tries to do something, or partly does something, but does not succeed or complete it"
    – Tom
    Apr 1, 2021 at 7:29
  • @Tom I am confused are you supporting me or doubting me? However I have tried to guess what your problem may be and have edited my answer a little to try and add some clarity. As far as I am concerned "to show that somebody tries to do something, or partly does something, but does not succeed or complete it" is the same as saying it shows what they intended to do. The "at" highlights the intention and the context shows what the action is
    – Brad
    Apr 1, 2021 at 9:35
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    If a bird is described as 'pecking at' a food source, the implication would not be that it was failing to make contact, just that it was pecking repeatedly - similarly with a mouse 'gnawing at' something. 'At' after a verb can imply an unsuccessful attempt, but it doesn't always have that meaning. Apr 1, 2021 at 12:08
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At X - the preposition at makes X a place (something that can answer the question where?)

Places are areas - often 2D but can also be 3D.

When certain types of actions target an entire area (as opposed to an object), we are also saying that if there is a thing in the area, there's a likelihood that the action won't "hit" the target.

So I would say it doesn't mean "try to do X" as much as it means "aiming the action X at the general area of Y instead of Y itself" - and it's wasn't successful otherwise you'd say he X U instead of he X at Y.

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