'Ask away' - what does 'away' mean?

46

7

“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?

Dasik

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 2 369

8"reminding himself irresistibly" is a very odd phrase. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2016-05-26T13:12:52.450

2http://www.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 – 2016-05-26T17:36:07.727

1

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 – 2016-05-27T13:11:04.127

1+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 – 2016-05-27T13:35:50.653

Answers

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.

Ben Kovitz

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 25 752

2In a sense, "releasing your pent up questions" is letting your questions -- your "asks" -- get "away". – Yakk – 2016-05-26T14:46:42.313

10I 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 – 2016-05-26T17:16:17.467

@Magnus Ah, thanks! I'd been wracking my brain all morning trying to remember that one! I could remember that it was the title of a well-known movie, and it also had a military setting, but I couldn't remember the first word. I could just dimly recall the melody of the song, even! Googling didn't turn anything up, because—the spelling is different, and so is the meaning, just as you said. I suspect that you're right about the origin of "bombs away", etc., though I've never checked it out. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-26T17:31:58.270

@Magnus For now, I'm going to leave "anchors aweigh" out of the answer, for fear of inducing undue confusion. But it's probably a great illustration of how English grammar works: phonetic similarity with an adjective, combined with semantic similarity with a different context, is enough to get people to treat away as an adverb with the appropriate meaning, if the older phrases are familiar enough. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-26T17:37:25.317

Also note that "away" can also serve as a (rare, possibly archaic) verb, as in "We must away". – S. G. – 2016-05-26T17:46:14.107

7"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 – 2016-05-26T19:30:36.337

@barbarabeeton Is there some way I could make it clearer that the connections between the sentences work by analogy, and not by applying a single meaning unchanged from one sentence to the next? – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-26T19:38:24.113

4@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 – 2016-05-26T20:18:21.160

@barbarabeeton Thanks for "torpedo away". I just added it. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T08:11:45.847

@barbarabeeton About different senses of "away", I think this is a case where understanding the full meaning requires understanding analogies at the level of whole sentences, and can't be deduced from a definition of the word "away" alone. The full meaning probably can't be stated precisely. It's a case where English violates the principle of compositionality.

– Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T08:20:56.477

@BenKovitz -- In the article you cite, there's a distinct exception made for idiomatic expressions. So I agree that, because the use of "away" is both idiomatic and situational, while this particular question might be answered precisely, uses that appear to be similar are too slippery to accept a straightforward answer. Diagramming sentences containing "away" might yield a solid grammatical structure, but meaning isn't illuminated. – barbara beeton – 2016-05-27T12:07:39.267

-1 The "analogy" with bombs away is inaccurate and misleading. The usage of bombs away in your answer is inaccurate, almost farcical. – Alan Carmack – 2016-05-27T13:13:38.300

+1 (countering @AlanCarmack's)... Even if "bombs away" doesn't refer to speed, it may refer to them being somewhere else (soon)... similar to when I pointed to someone yesterday, and then pointed to a location, non-verbally communicating the idea of: "you... out." (I was telling a young person that this person had permission to "get out" of the room.) I don't disagree with Ben Kovitz, and I think it's a great example of how different people understand it different (much like the comment he added to my answer). Also +1 for good job having multiple supporting examples and perspectives. – TOOGAM – 2016-05-27T13:33:00.827

@TOOGAM Whatever. This site is about providing accurate answers, not for people to pat each other on the back when they provide answers that contain inaccurate information or guesses that are wrong, both of which mislead the OP. – Alan Carmack – 2016-05-27T13:40:52.153

@AlanCarmack Could you explain why you think that? I might not agree, and most people might not agree, but a brief explanation might give readers a useful opposing view. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T13:42:39.810

@BenK Will you encourage the OP to deselect his answer because he has selected one too soon?

– Alan Carmack – 2016-05-27T13:53:30.670

@AlanCarmack Actually, it's been more than 24 hours, we've gotten lots of responses, and ELL tweeted this question, so it's gotten no shortage of attention. If you'd like to post a competing answer, though, fire away.

– Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T14:02:06.267

1I 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 – 2016-05-27T14:02:14.260

@ColleenV I agree that "toiled away" doesn't play much on spatial metaphors, but is that "'away' by itself"? I don't think that "Fire away!" means the same as "Fire at will." The former suggests going "all out", while the latter only gives authority for when to fire to the soldiers. Dictionary definitions just don't capture this kind of thing well. To really "get" these little words, you have to follow the analogies that they evoke, and often there are many. I agree that there is another kind of "away" phrase being echoed here, but I thought it would obscure the main point to go into it. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T14:17:00.773

1I think it's a false pattern and that it will confuse learners when they come across other uses. Put the toys away. Give the plot away. Chip away at. Fade away. You have to contort the idea that "away means distant from" quite a bit to apply it to those common uses. It's better (in my opinion, of course) to work from the dictionary definition of "freely/at will" and show which contexts that definition applies to. – ColleenV – 2016-05-27T14:22:53.647

@ColleenV Maybe you can suggest something here. I'm trying to suggest, without going on an abstract tangent, that the word "away" does not have a constant meaning in every phrase, but that it gets stretched and varied under pressure from analogies with other phrases and other contexts. You're a careful reader and yet apparently you thought I was suggesting that "toil away" would make the same spatial metaphor as "Bombs away!" Can you think of a brief, graceful way to guide a reader "away" from that interpretation? – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T14:25:49.853

I understood what you were getting at Ben, but I imagine that someone learning English who is focused on rules and trying to find ways to wrangle our crazy language into some kind of sense would latch on to By itself, the word away means "located somewhere else"... "by itself" is what misleads. Does "on" by itself mean "on top of" (on the table) or "assigned to" (on the job) or "operating" (the TV is on)? You can't tell if away is an adverb or adjective out of context, how can you know its meaning and nuance? – ColleenV – 2016-05-27T14:35:52.460

@ColleenV Understanding the spatial metaphors in "put the toys away", "give the plot away", "chip away", and "fade away" seems to me very important to understanding the little "direction words" that often follow a verb in English, but not in most languages. See also this answer and this answer. We might have to disagree about this (feel free to downvote), but I think these explanations shed light on one of the major obstacles for people learning English, which natives often find too intuitive to notice.

– Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T14:41:20.113

@ColleenV That's it: I'd like to free the reader from the expectation that learning rules is the way to learn English, though preferably by example rather than abstract explanation. If you follow the analogies, you can see how the language makes sense; if you expect it to follow rules, it won't. BTW, the OP here is Korean, and I don't think Korean culture has anything like the same expectation that language should work by strict rules, but I've never grilled any Korean acquaintances about this. Hey, redkey88, does this answer seem like a strict rule? – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T14:58:39.450

1If you take abstract concepts and force them into concrete metaphors you are hobbling your understanding of the world. Most native speakers don't understand "fade away" as a spatial metaphor. They learned it from exposure, in context. Many of patterns/metaphors/analogies native speakers apply are created after the fact to try to explain something we know intuitively.We didn't learn those concepts the way we're explaining them. There are just some things in English you can't reason out properly, and it's more cumbersome to do so than just memorize the definitions and learn the collocations. – ColleenV – 2016-05-27T14:59:23.853

@ColleenV We will probably have to disagree, but here's some clarification. I'm certainly against forcing concepts onto things they don't fit (of course!). It seems to me that those little words and their spatial analogies are helpful cues mainly for learning. They point out a relevant aspect of context. Familiarity with English spatial metaphors helps you pick up the phrases from real, in-context usage. Rules, on the hand, it seems to me, are the false, post hoc explanation. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T15:15:50.423

Visualizing two trains leaving cities at different speeds is helpful for learning algebra, but it will cripple you when you try to understand calculus. In the same way, relying on analogies/metaphors will make it much more difficult to become fluent. It's easy for a native speaker to come up with a spatial analogy for "tucked away" because they know what it means, but it would be easier for a learner coming across that expression to know that away can mean 'in or into storage or safekeeping' because they looked it up in a dictionary. – ColleenV – 2016-05-27T15:42:52.227

Just idle speculation, but I wonder whether this usage actually came about via a corruption of (anchor) aweigh

– Kevin – 2016-05-27T16:57:52.880

@Kevin I gave it a quick search. The OED gives these earliest dates for "fire away": "To fire a weapon, esp. repeatedly or eagerly" (1729), the metaphorical variation "speak, play, sing, etc. with energy and rapidity, esp. as expression of permission or encouragement" (1756), "to use up ammunition by firing a gun" (1729). They cite ask away as relating to fire away starting by 1844. Their earliest "aweigh" is 1670. I'd say an etymological connection with "aweigh" is doubtful but not disproven. For confusions of "aweigh", see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/anchors-aweigh.html.

– Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T17:31:24.577

@Kevin Just to be clear (I ran out of space), the reason I think an etymological connection is doubtful is because the practice of putting away after a word to indicate moving away, flying away, carrying something away, or being away is much older. E.g. take away (to take elsewhere) is attested by 1382. "Without hesitation or delay" (part of the meaning of fire away) is attested by 1535. – Ben Kovitz – 2016-05-27T18:16:44.743

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."

nnnnnn

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 1 854

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.

MadWard

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 1 980

Prepositions? If I'm not mistaken, "away" functions as an adverb here. – Dan Henderson – 2016-05-27T12:51:46.017

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 – 2016-05-27T12:55:51.530

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!"

Chen Li Yong

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 831

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

TOOGAM

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 798

2(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 – 2016-05-27T12:31:51.893

-2

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

hollerith

Posted 2016-05-26T08:19:59.010

Reputation: 7

3And what does "away" mean there? – Nathan Tuggy – 2016-05-28T16:58:09.810