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Bit of a quibble on a discussion elsewhere.

I made the following statement:

They had absolutely no debt, except for their mortgage.

Someone (with whom I disagree vehemently) has accused this of being a self-contradicting statement.

I argue that the meaning is identical to:

Except for their mortgage, they had absolutely no debt.

Am I missing something, or am I right in thinking that the meaning of these two statements is exactly the same, and that the inclusion of except in an absolute statement does not render the statement self-contradictory but simply makes the single exception clear?

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They mean the same thing, but I think both are off. The word absolutely makes this statement feel contradictory and a bit silly whichever way you phrase it - a mortgage can be quite a big debt indeed. –  onomatomaniak Oct 17 '11 at 15:02
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@onomatomaniak I disagree. The use of "absolutely no debt" doesn't seek to imply "they barely owe anything", it implies that they are -- other than the matter of the mortgage -- financially responsible adults. –  Jeremy Oct 17 '11 at 16:02
    
@Jeremy: Saying 'absolutely no X except..' is misleading doublespeak. It's like saying '2+2=5 for large values of 2. 'no -other- debt' is right. And 'absolutely' is just rhetorical sleight of hand ... 'oh, they must really have no debt at all'. –  Mitch Oct 17 '11 at 16:15
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

OP's friend is the most extreme pedant I've ever heard of! Here are 136,000 written instances of absolutely nothing except.

I imagine this guy would positively foam at the mouth if he ever came across quite unique (admittedly less common, but still 120,000 instances).

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Thanks! Perfect! –  The Evil Greebo Oct 17 '11 at 15:16
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As I think I've commented on this site already, it's perfectly sensible to speak of degrees of uniqueness: if Jim is the only one with red hair in the room, but his eyes are the same color as Joe's and Carol's, while Bob is the only one with curly hair and the only one with green eyes, then Bob's appearance is clearly more unique than Jim's. –  Marthaª Oct 17 '11 at 15:56
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If there are two ways of saying something, there is something different. It may be subtle, but they're different. Another way of saying this is that there are no exact synonyms. There will be some situation where one can distinguish the meaning of two different ways of saying things.

In your examples, the 'except' clause coming second after a very categorical statement is strange, because 'absolutely' implies there are no exceptions. With the exception first, one is prepared for the general statement afterwards.

Of course if this were mathematics, then yes, they -should- be considered identical. But for humans the change in order renders a change in emphasis and so a change in meaning.

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