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“At wit’s end” — Meaning, Context & Examples

“I’m really confused.” “I can’t understand this.” “This is too hard for me!” These are different phrases we usually utter when we’ve got ourselves stuck into something we can’t figure out. 

But have you noticed how mainstream these phrases sound?

Surely, if you want to expand the horizons of your language, speak more eloquent English and write with a much more diverse vocabulary, you need to know unique phrases to refer to seemingly common phenomena. 

“At wit’s end” is a classic English expression that you must know about.

This article defines the phrase comprehensively and answers some of the most common questions related to it. You will also learn how to use the phrase in casual and formal contexts.

 

What is the meaning of the expression “at wit’s end”?

The expression “at wit’s end” means to be completely puzzled and perplexed, not knowing what to do. This can be inferred from the usage of the word ‘wit’ which means “intellect” or “thinking ability.” To be at your wit’s end means to exhaust your thinking ability.

 

In-depth definition and usage of the expression “at wit’s end”

We’ve already briefly defined what the term means. Let’s go into greater depth to understand it better and solidify our comprehension of this expression.

There are two different meanings of the term “at wit’s end” which also gives rise to different ways of using the expression in language. 

Not to mention the different meaning also alters the placement of the apostrophe after the ‘s’. We will talk about that in the next section.

The first meaning of the phrase, as mentioned above, is to be at the limits of one’s emotional or mental capabilities.

Here the word ‘wit’ defines one’s intellect, ability to think or withstand emotional pressure. 

To be at the end of one’s wit is to no longer be able to think, solve a problem or think straight. Here are some examples of how the expression can be used for this meaning.

“I’m at my wit’s end with this exam. I can’t figure out the diagrams in the second chapter and I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

 

“He’d been trying to get the truck started for six consecutive days. He tried to replace every part in the truck and still didn’t work out. I guess he’s at his wit’s end with the Ford.”

 
Secondly, the expression can also mean to be in a state of distress, lose all your patience, or have no tolerance left. Bear in mind that when you use the expression for this meaning, it becomes “at wits’ end” as compared to “at wit’s end.”

Here, the word “wits” is used. It refers to one’s ability to withstand mental pressure, tolerate or have patience. 

When you’re at the end of your wits, it simply means you’re losing patience. This usage is similar to the phrase “to lose one’s wits.” Losing one’s wits means to be really angry

It can be inferred that while you’re really angry when you’ve lost your wits, you’re running out of patience and on your way to becoming really angry when you’re at your wits’ end. Since you’ve not already lost it.  

“I’m at my wits’ end with this noise. I can’t take it anymore!”

 

“Did you crash the truck!? Dad is already at his wits’ end and is going to lose it when he sees this!”

 

Is it “at wit’s end” or “at wits’ end”?

Here are two similar phrases with slightly different punctuation. On the surface, it might look like one is the correctly punctuated version while the other is incorrect. 

But when you scratch the surface, you will discover that both of these versions are correct since they give rise to different meanings. As mentioned above, the phrase “at wit’s end” or “at wits’ end” has two meanings. Let’s see which means which.

Let’s talk about “at wit’s end” first. We can see that the word ‘wit’ is used as a singular term and the (‘s) denotes possession.

One’s ‘wit’ can be understood as the thinking ability. So this version of the phrase refers to the first meaning, to exhaust your thinking ability.

When it comes to the second version, “at wits’ end,” the word ‘wit’ is used in its plural form: ‘wits.’

When you want to show possession of a plural form that ends with the letter ‘s,’ the convention is to not add an extra ‘s’ and only use an apostrophe at the end of the word.

For instance, to show possession of the word ‘wits,’ we use (wits’). This gives rise to a slightly different meaning than the first version of the phrase. ‘Wits’ usually refers to one’s patience, or ability to tolerate. 

To be at the end of your wits means to be running out of patience or becoming really angry. 

Hence, both versions of the phrase are correct. 

 

Origins of the Phrase “at wit’s end”

The earliest known use of the term “at wit’s end” dates back to a late 14th century Middle English poem. William Langland used the term in his narrative poem, “The vision of Piers Plowman (1370-1390).

The exact phrase he used was, “Astronomyens also aren at hir wittes ende.” This translates to “Astronomers are also at their wit’s end” in modern English. 

The poet used this phrase to describe a situation that was puzzling all people who came from the lands or the seas – referring to shepherds and sailors.

He added, that even those who knew of the worlds beyond ours, astronomers, couldn’t make any sense of it. 

Later use of the phrase was seen in a version of the Bible. 

Psalms 107:27 (King James Version):

“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.”Bible, King James Version, Psamls 107:27

Unlike many other phrases, we are lucky to be able to pinpoint one of the first if not the first use of this phrase.

This enables us to understand that the phrase was originally intended to convey the same meaning as it does today and that its meanings have not changed over time.