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For example:

Fully 46 percent of the recipients polled in the social sciences had...

Is this simply a way to avoid starting the sentence with a number? As in:

Forty-six percent...

I understand that, mathematically speaking, percents can be fractional. In the context of this example - and many others that I've seen - it just seems superfluous.

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It's an intensifier, an adverb meant to make the figure "46 percent" seem more significant. To make it seem less significant, a copywriter or political spin doctor would substitute barely for fully. – Robusto Apr 25 '12 at 19:40
You can look up the definintion of "fully" in Oxford Dictionary, where it says that it means no less or fewer than and that it is used to emphasise an amount. – Irene Apr 25 '12 at 19:43
So in other words, it functions the same way as "a whopping". – Kaz Apr 25 '12 at 19:48
@Robusto: That's a slightly cynical way of putting it. Oftentimes the writer could reasonably assume many of his readers will be completely unaware that x% really is a lot in the context of whatever is being written about. Prefacing the actual value with fully or a mere is a useful shorthand way of bringing them up to speed. – FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 0:40
up vote 4 down vote accepted

It does have a formal meaning, similar to literally. A claim that '10 per cent of the respondents did this' might mean 9.5%, or, in everyday speech, anything above 7-8%. Fully ten per cent is emphasizing that the writer means no less than a full ten per cent (perhaps slightly more). Just like literally, however, the temptation to use the word simply as an intensifier has proved too strong in many cases; judge for yourself whether the writer is sufficiently numerate (and scrupulous) to use the proper meaning or not.

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I don't agree that "fully 10%" guarantees the actual value isn't really 9.8%. What it normally means, as Hellion says, is that the value is more than people who take an interest in such figures might have expected. – FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 0:43
@Fumble: are you referring to what most people intend by the phrase, or the literal meaning of the words? The two are different, as I said: my answer meant only the latter. – TimLymington Apr 26 '12 at 13:33
I mean this usage of "fully" is idiomatic, and means "surprisingly high" rather than "at least, not a fraction less". Imho "a full 10%" is a related expression that can convey either of those two nuances. But if I read that my car's fuel-tank holds "a full 70 litres" I expect that to be 15.4 gallons (not 15 gallons, which is only 68.2 litres). – FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 14:32

As the comments say, Fully is being used as an intensifier here, to make the number 'feel big'. That is, its goal is to give you the impression of "wow, that's a lot," or at least "that's more than you would have expected".

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