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I don’t remember what set me off, but I spent some time yesterday morning trying to nail down the different ways we use “after all”. It took some pondering. In the end I think I was able to pick out three related but separate meanings:
- The literal meaning (which seems to appear rarely in the UK and almost never here in the USA) is “despite much evidence to the contrary”. The Brits sometimes use it like that, I think; but here in the USA we say, instead, “after all that”, eg “so after all that you’re going to buy it anyway?”. “All that” could be either “everything you said against it” or “all the trouble you had with the last one”.
But here in the US we use it in two closely related ways:
- “I considered that possibility but decided against it”. For example, “So Joe turned out to be the Spy after all.” It means it was contrary to my expectation but not completely against it; perhaps Billy suggested it early in the game, or at one point it looked like it because of something Joe himself said, or I just felt it instinctively. But in the end I decided Joe was innocent. But, see, the earlier indication was right after all. This wouldn’t work if it was never up for consideration at some point. If I say “so Chuck Norris is actually a woman after all!”, the “after all” part would be meaningless because no one has ever suggested it. In fact if I said it that way, my hearers would understand me to mean that I, at least, had wondered about the possibility myself, or heard someone suggest it
- “As mitigation”. For example, “You can’t punish him; he did tell the truth, after all!”.
Note that “after all” in sense 3 can come either before or after the declaration; in sense 2 it always comes after.
I worked so hard at this that I wonder now whether I botched it. Does anyone see that one of my meanings is wrong, or that I missed one?
I see the same with both your examples (2) and (3).
I only want point out there is room for misunderstanding of a different kind:
(2) “So Joe turned out to be the Spy after all.”
At first glance, that implies there were contemplations back and forth over whether he was or was not the Spy. But there could well be quarrels over whether he was the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Lover, no?
Likewise with (3) “You can’t punish him; he did tell the truth, after all!”
Besides the apparent binary decision (did/did not), the implied contemplation could be about other things:
He was too young/old to be punished.
He did too many meritorious things in the past.
His father was too powerful.
But then it doesn’t need to imply any contemplation. It can be just a way to highlight why a fact is less surprising, less unbelievable, less shocking than first appears :
We land first on Mars? We are Americans after all.
Bill Gates gives a billion? He has many more after all.
(Maybe that’s what you mean by ‘mitigation’)
Your example (1), I don’t have much sense of it at all.
“He did tell the truth” is of course just an example; you’re right about the other possibilities, all mitigating the offense.
But about that other set of examples (“We are Americans, after all”), I’d never thought of them. Maybe they’re a fourth category. But I’m inclined to go with your thought, and just broaden the 3rd category; in that sense “after all” shows mitigation (if that’s the best word) not just of an offense but of any surprise or other tendency. “It isn’t surprising that you came up with that explanation; you are a genius, after all.” The “offense” example is just one sub-class thereof.
Anybody have a good dictionary? I’m curious to see how the phrase is defined there.