Blog/Grammar tips
9 June 2022
4 min read

All intents and purposes or all intensive purposes

The English language has many well-known words and idioms that create much confusion among natives and non-natives alike. For instance, "all intents and purposes" is often misinterpreted and misused as "all intensive purposes."

Do you ever feel puzzled by these phrases? If yes, you're not alone—a lot of people do.

So, is it "all intents and purposes" or "all intensive purposes?" What do these phrases mean? What is the right way of using them? Let's take a look.

Why do most people confuse "all intents and purposes" with "all intensive purposes?"

"All intensive purposes" is an example of eggcorn, which refers to a phrase originating from the mishearing or misinterpretation of other words. These expressions have a phonetic similarity when spoken aloud but different meanings. The mistaken terms look like a logical or plausible alternative in most cases. 

The word "eggcorn" comes from people mishearing it for the word "acorn." Linguist Geoffrey Pullum invented the term for these misheard words and phrases in the early 2000s.

When spoken, "all intents and purposes" sounds identical to "all intensive purposes." One reason for mixing them up when writing or speaking is their homophonous pronunciations.

Regardless of the misused word, there's a good chance that the person who said or wrote it didn't mean to use the wrong word at all. 

It's another way languages evolve as people learn them differently based on their own experiences with words.

The origin of the idiom "for all intents and purposes"

The earliest reference to the phrase is found in the 1546 Act of Parliament during the reign of King Henry VIII. The original form was "to all intents, constructions, and purposes," referring to the King's power to interpret laws. 

The English people excluded the word "construction." They started using it as "to all intents and purposes" instead of the original phrase.

Americans later adopted the expression but replaced the preposition "to" with "for." So, the phrase is now "for all intents and purposes" in American English.

"All intents and purposes" and "all intensive purposes" — What do they mean?

The explanation of all intents and purposes

"All intents and purposes" is the standard form, which means "in effect" or "virtually." You can apply it to imply that something is essentially the same as something else. 

For example: We need to finalise some clauses, but the deal is done for all intents and purposes.

The sentence implies that the deal is almost done despite some clauses yet to be finalised.

The explanation of all intensive purposes

The phrase "all intensive purposes" is a misheard form of "all intents and purposes." Using them in the same context will be a grammatical mistake. 

If you consider the literal meaning, "intensive" means "rigorous," "in-depth," or "highly concentrated." So, the phrase "all intensive purposes" could refer to "purposes that require rigorous effort."

For example: I will study hard for all intensive purposes.

The sentence implies that you will study very hard.

All intents and purposes or all intensive purposes: which one is correct?

In the first phrase, "intents" means "the intentions of something," whereas, in the second, it means "the intensity with which something is done."

Although "intensive purposes" and "intents and purposes" sound like homophones, their meanings are quite different. 

When you use them interchangeably in the same sentence or context, the difference becomes pretty clear. Look at these two examples:

Example 1: For all intents and purposes, your products are low-quality. 

Example 2: For all intensive purposes, your products are low-quality.

Example 2 here still makes sense if the phrases have similar meanings in your mind. However, it sounds pretty off if you take the literal meaning of "intensive purposes." They are not interchangeable from a grammatical point of view.

But the line between right and wrong is a bit fuzzy here because people use "all intensive purposes," thinking it's the correct phrase. You can even find many news outlets making the same mistake.

"For all intensive purposes, she has mastitis, despite the fact that it isn't visible."The Independent

"For all intensive purposes, the latter is about how large the UX looks and feels out on the road."Overdrive

Such mistakes should have been corrected in the editorial process.

Even if you can technically use "all intensive purposes" in written and spoken forms, the proper contexts for its application are rare. The phrase's meaning is "intense or exhaustive purposes," and it's hard to find a situation where you can use it. When people use this phrase, they have the meaning of "intents and purposes" in mind.

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FAQs about "all intents and purposes" or "all intensive purposes"

What can I say instead of "all intents and purposes?"

The phrase means "in effect" or "virtually." So, use these words if you don't want to use "all intents and purposes."

What does it mean by "intensive purposes?"

The words "intensive purposes" mean "intensive, highly concentrated, or thorough purposes," which doesn't make practical sense when used in a sentence. People mistakenly think it has the same meaning as "all intents and purposes."

Is it correct to say intensive purposes?

No. The proper term is "all intents and purposes." Using the words "intensive purposes" will be a mistake. However, the expression is quite prevalent, and many people treat it as the correct term.

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