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An approximate answer is one which is close to the correct answer. Likewise, we can talk of an approximate model, or approximate methods in mathematics.

The etymology is from the Latin ad, "to" and proximus, "closest", see e.g. here. I don't think this can be disputed. Occasionally proximate is used as a synonym, though that word has a different meaning in legal English.

So if an approximate answer is close, a very approximate answer should be very close.

In practice, "very approximate" or "very approximately" is overwhelmingly used with the opposite meaning of "roughly", indicating that an answer or estimate is not necessarily accurate. For examples, search Google.

Is there any justification for this use? Is there any justification for my suggested use? Should we avoid the phrase altogether?

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4 Answers 4

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I follow your reasoning, but the point of an approximation is that the exact answer is not available. So the salient feature is that it is not exact. Therefore, very approximate is used to mean very inexact.

An approximation which is especially accurate is a very close approximation. When this near-exactness is expressed in adjective form, I think the word approximate is generally avoided, in favor of phrases like almost exact or very nearly exact.

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I disagree that approximate is generally avoided, it is in general use. Almost exact and very nearly exact \have no more meaning. If I said 'the temperature is approximately 25 degrees c" it would have no more or less meaning than"the temperature is almost exactly 25 degrees c" or "the temperature is very nearly exactly 25 degrees c". –  Richard A Aug 7 '11 at 12:49
    
@Richard A: I'm not saying that approximate is avoided in general use. I'm saying that approximate does not usually appear in adjective phrases that mean even more accurate than usually meant by "approximate". That is, very approximate usually means less accurate than plain-old approximate; but "more accurate than plain-old approximate" usually does not involve the word approximate. –  John Y Aug 8 '11 at 5:11
    
sorry, I misunderstood. I've now also reread the question and finally understand what he was asking. I'm a bit slow sometimes. –  Richard A Aug 17 '11 at 12:03

The phrase makes sense, but there's definitely reasons to interpret it both ways.

Approximately really means "close", but people often interpret it to mean "my estimate."

When people say something is very approximate, it means they are using a lot of approximating (estimating) and very little fact.

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It's either approximate or precise. "Very" approximate means even less precise because "very" intensifies the approximation. We're talking ball park estimates, educated guesses. However, Mark Twain once said that authors should go through a manuscript and substitute "damn" for "very". Your editor will delete it and the text will not lose meaning. The safe thing to do is to refuse to use "very" except in rare and carefully considered circumstances.

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As approximate gives no indication of the degree of accuracy of the estimation, very approximate means nothing more than approximate. In my opinion the very is redundant.

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I thought I liked this reasoning, but now I think it's nonsense. Is it redundant to say very big or very pretty? –  RoundTower Aug 8 '11 at 1:38
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More to the point, in retrospect, I have not addressed the question. Because it was my answer, I think nonsense is a little harsh. (Or perhaps it is harsh, and cannot be a little harsh?) I think very big, very pretty or very approximate only make sense in some contexts. A very big thing would be too vague to know how big it was, a very big house is being compared to our general knowledge of the distribution of house sizes. It's still subjective, in my opinion, where the distinction lies between a big house and a very big house. Okay, tired now. –  Richard A Aug 17 '11 at 12:14

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