43

“Sir,” said Harry, reminding himself irresistibly of Voldemort, “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Ask away, then, my dear boy, ask away. . . .”

In this sentence, I don't know what does 'away' mean?

I understand what 'away' means in these sentences:

Go away.
Jason was away on a business trip.

But when we use 'ask away'... What nuance of meaning of the word 'away' is here?

Is it possible to omit 'away'? Would it still be the same meaning?

  • 8
    "reminding himself irresistibly" is a very odd phrase. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 26 '16 at 13:12
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    thefreedictionary.com/away - Entry #9 : Freely; at will: Fire away! You could omit 'away' and just say ask, but you would lose some meaning and some sense of how receptive the person telling you to ask is to the question. – ColleenV May 26 '16 at 17:36
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    Please see Not so fast! (When should I accept my answer?) By accepting an answer so soon, you make it less likely to receive additional answers, some of which may be better than the one you selected. – Alan Carmack May 27 '16 at 13:11
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    +1 to question, which has generated several different answers that essentially agree with each other. This one simple-seeming word is unexpectedly challenging to analyze. Good job asking a question that turned out to be quite intriguing. – TOOGAM May 27 '16 at 13:35
51

People understand Ask away by analogy with certain other familiar sentences with away.


Soldiers shout this when dropping bombs from an airplane (see, for example, this book):

Bombs away!

By itself, the word away means "located somewhere else" or "at a distance". In the phrase bombs away!, it suggests movement: "going somewhere else". Bombs away! announces that the bombs have just been released and are now in motion, though many non-soldiers think it's a command to release the bombs. Either way, it refers to the bombs' being "on their way" to their destination, freed from the plane, moving away from the plane, soon to cause damage when they hit their target. A similar sentence is Torpedo away!, said after launching a torpedo (example).


Soldiers say this to mean, "Start shooting your guns, and don't hold back":

Fire away!

Fire here means to shoot a gun. Here, away has the same connotation as in Bombs away!: that you are releasing something that will fly "away" and do damage. It also suggests immediacy and a lack of inhibition. You should eagerly "release" your potential firepower "right away" and hold nothing back.

A metaphorical usage of Fire away! appears in this well-known song from 1980: "Hit me with your best shot—fire away!" The literal meaning is: "Hit me as hard as you can. I am tough enough to withstand it." The speaker is confidently challenging the listener to a fight.

People commonly say Fire away! metaphorically to mean "Ask me all the questions that you want to ask", especially when these questions might be difficult for the speaker to answer, either because they might dig into something embarrassing to the speaker or because the speaker might not know the answer.


When you say:

Ask away!

you are telling your listener to ask any question or questions that the listener wants to ask. The nuance of meaning comes from the way this sentence echoes sentences like those above (and some others, but hopefully that's enough). It suggests that the listener should not hold back or be inhibited about asking these questions, even though the questions might be difficult or upsetting for the speaker.

Ask away! doesn't necessarily suggest that the questions will hit the speaker like bombs or bullets. But this sentence is especially appropriate in situations like a meeting where the speaker must answer hostile questions about something unpleasant or embarrassing, like the "rapid-fire questions" mentioned in this difficult situation. In any sort of context, Ask away! suggests that the speaker is confident that he will be able to address whatever the listener "throws at him". It can also be a way to reassure the listener that the speaker won't take offense to a question.

Notice in the story that the listener, Slughorn, is upset by the question. He suddenly switches from affable confidence to fear. The question appears to hit him pretty hard.

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    In a sense, "releasing your pent up questions" is letting your questions -- your "asks" -- get "away". – Yakk May 26 '16 at 14:46
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    I like your analysis, but seems also worth mentioning the striking similarity to the nautical phrase "anchors aweigh" which conveys a similar sense of movement but through a totally different meaning and spelling. I'd suspect "ask away" and other variants may be modern adaptations of that classic sailors' phrase. – Magnus May 26 '16 at 17:16
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    "bombs away" originally referred to the fact that the bombs had been released, and were thus "away" or gone from the racks in which they had been carried. Similarly (in a naval context) "torpedo away". Could be paraphrased as "sent on their way". But quite a different sense than "ask away" or "fire away". And absolutely the opposite of "anchors aweigh", which sounds the same, but means that the anchors are being raised into a "stowed" position, and derived from the expression "to weigh anchor". – barbara beeton May 26 '16 at 19:30
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    @BenKovitz -- "Away" has many senses, and looking through the various dictionary listings on the web, I don't think they're all clearly covered. (And a number of other senses are identified that are totally unrelated to the present situation.) One sense that I think you don't mention is "at will", which has no implication of conflict, but just means "go ahead as soon as you're ready"; that is the sense I think most relevant here. Almost all uses mentioned in all the answers are idiomatic, and hard to tie down. (Sorry, not very helpful.) – barbara beeton May 26 '16 at 20:18
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    I have to agree with @AlanCarmack that suggesting "away" by itself means 'somewhere else' is misleading (although not in my opinion worth a DV). Any dictionary shows multiple meanings for away (I toiled away at my job - am I running away from it?) the most relevant being "freely or at will". Fire away! is not "send your bullets away from you", it's "fire at will". I don't think it's metaphorical at all, I think it is literal based on a well-known meaning of away. – ColleenV May 27 '16 at 14:02
13

Away has quite a few different meanings, and can be both an adverb and an adjective.

In the context of "ask away", it is an adverb that means "without hesitation".

You could omit the "away" and just say "Ask then, my dear boy, ask."

9

Away here is used to incite/encourage your interlocutor to do it.

Ask away thus means "Well then go for it, ask your question !". This relates especially well to the passage you quoted from Harry Potter.

In English, prepositions/adverbs can literally change a verb's meaning, and your only way to understand most of them is to bathe yourself in English everyday through series, talking with English people and may be even travelling to an English-speaking country if you have the means.

  • Prepositions? If I'm not mistaken, "away" functions as an adverb here. – Dan Henderson May 27 '16 at 12:51
  • You're right, got carried away (:d). I've seen too many prepositions changing verbs' meaning that I just went with it without thinking. Editing. – MadWard May 27 '16 at 12:55
5

My native language is not English. But as far as I understand the sentence, whether it's ask away or fire away, the "away" in these sentences mean like "please", or "just do it!"

1

In the phrase "ask away", I've always thought the word "away" does refer to a distance.

Specifically, it refers to the "distance" from the realm of assumable acceptability. For instance, this may refer to questions that seem to be quite "far" from an expected topic (like being "off topic" from a discussion that has already active), or which are quite "far" from the realm of commonly tolerated protocol (such as asking a question about a sensitive subject, or asking a person who isn't the regular recipient of such a question). If a person wants to ask a question that is within the realm of acceptability, then they could presumably ask without needing an invitation. However, in some circumstances, a potential asker might say:

"Can I ask you a question about something else, about another subject?"

(and the response could be...)

"Ask away"

The phrase may also refer to the idea to "proceed" and "go ahead". For instance, with the term "fire away" (referring to shooting a gun, mentioned by some of the other answers), it means that you don't need to limit yourself to some confines/limits about when a person is not supposed to fire. "Go" ahead, and do it. And, don't "come back" whining about things if things don't happen as expected.

Given that my answer has used the words "distance", "far", "off", "within", "proceed", "go", and "come", using the word "away" feels like a quite natural fit to the numerous other spatial terms.

Update edit: added one word to evidence in prior paragraph, and added formatting for easier clarity

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    (Native AmE) I understand "ask away" somewhat differently, but I'm giving this a +1 because it does such a good job of explaining how you understand it. This answer actually teaches a lot about how English conveys thoughts from one person to another, especially the kinds of spatial analogies that dominate the way we understand the little "direction words" that often follow a verb (and are not found in most languages). The fact that two native speakers understand "ask away" by somewhat different analogies is especially valuable to know for someone learning English as a second language. – Ben Kovitz May 27 '16 at 12:31
-2

It is short for the phrase: "Ask away to your heart's content".

  • 3
    And what does "away" mean there? – Nathan Tuggy May 28 '16 at 16:58

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