Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

You often hear people follow up the word "absolutely" with words such as "fantastic", "amazing", "brilliant", "knackered".

But to hear say someone say "That was absolutely good" or "I am absolutely tired" would sound ridiculous.

Is there actually anything grammatically wrong with these 2 statements, or are they just so unconventional that they sound wrong?

share|improve this question
    
As a side note, the usage of "I'm good" in response to "How are you" is often questioned as well: quora.com/English-language/… –  zooone9243 May 28 '12 at 16:04
    
I have used "Absolutely" as a response to a question such as "May I interupt you?" or "Thank you for having me over" –  user46225 Jun 17 '13 at 16:23
add comment

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In informal speech the word absolutely is often used to add emphasis to a superlative. You could just as easily say, "It was fantastic," as, "It was absolutely fantastic," but both really mean the same thing.

Adding it to words like good doesn't have the same requirement for emphasis, as there is a superlative you could use instead, so you would rather write, "brilliant," than, "absolutely good."

share|improve this answer
2  
Good isn’t a superlative. Best is a superlative. –  tchrist May 28 '12 at 23:23
    
@tchrist - exactly my point. –  Rory Alsop May 29 '12 at 9:10
add comment

Absolute(ly) is an interesting predicate; it has a semantic restriction to polar extremes.

That is, it can modify a noun phrase, verb phrase, clause, or adjunct that represents some extreme end of a scale. For instance, consider the temperature terms scale, from low to high:

  • frozen/freezing ~ cold ~ cool ~ lukewarm/tepid ~ warm ~ hot ~ boiling/roasting

Absolutely just won't work with the terms in the middle;:

  • *The water is absolutely tepid now.
  • *My coffee is absolutely cool now.
  • *The weather is absolutely warm today.

But it's fine with terms at the endpoints, even in metaphoric use:

  • We're absolutely roasting in here.
  • I'm absolutely frozen.

(Note also what the phrase Absolute Zero means)

An interesting effect of this is that absolute(ly) can be used to differentiate certain kinds of meaning because of this restriction.

The English adjective mad has two different meanings -- it can be, and most often is, used in the sense of 'angry', with a human experiencer subject and a temporary emotional sense.

But mad can also mean 'insane', especially in metaphors like "mad/crazy about". This sense also has a human experiencer subject and can occur in many of the same constructions as emotional mad, so -- since it's important not to confuse anger with insanity, to say the least -- one can apply the absolute test.

  • Mary is absolutely mad about you.
  • *Mary is absolutely mad at you.

The use of absolutely here distinguishes the two senses, independently of the prepositions; language is full of redundancies like that. Linguists are always looking for phenomena that can act as indicators for other phenomena, like staining slides.

share|improve this answer
    
But Mary can absolutely be mad at you (or is it just me?) –  TimLymington May 28 '12 at 20:14
    
Adverbs can modify clauses as well as predicate adjectives. That one modifies the whole clause Mary is mad at you and asserts that it's absolutely correct (all binary axes like True/False, Correct/Incorrect, etc. are automatically polar extremes and can use absolute(ly)). –  John Lawler May 28 '12 at 20:33
add comment

If you are describing morality and not quality then "absolutely good" and "absolutely evil" make sense.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Absolutely good already has a meaning, though not one often used outside philosophy or theology. If you replace it with the synonym totally, things become clearer: it may be that the film was so fantastic/exciting that nothing could ever be more so, or that you could not be more exhausted without being unconscious (a degree of exaggeration seems to be acceptable among humans); but it wasn't the definition against which all films are measured, (absolutely good).

Alternatively, it may be that good or tired are simply not emphatic enough to be paired with absolutely. 'That film was absolutely the best!' or 'I'm absolutely knackered!' yes (as long as there is an exclamation mark implied); 'It was very good' or 'I'm extremely tired' also OK (with no exclamation mark); but don't mix the two.

I haven't made up my mind which is the better answer, but posting them separately (and in competition) would be just too weird.

share|improve this answer
    
Or completely, or utterly, or positively, or definitely, or entirely, or surely, ... or maybe really. Ok, maybe not really. –  tchrist May 28 '12 at 23:25
add comment

Others have done a good job answering this question, but I'd like to add one possible exception. I think that you're saying that it sounds a bit peculiar – but that doesn't make it wrong. Sometimes such word pairings are used for dramatic or comedic effect.

In this case, I've heard this device used when someone wants to emphasize the mediocrity of something:

That was absolutely satisfactory.

When spoken, the listener typically expects a strong word to come after absolutely, such as fantastic or outstanding. When a more neutral word comes out instead, it catches the listener by surprise, which can be somewhat comical, if used in the right context.

One place I might use this is after going to a restaurant. Let's say the food was decent – but not great; the service was marginal – but not rude; the prices were a little high – but not outlandish. All told, the evening was a bit of a disappointment, but not a catastrophe. I didn't have a terrible time, but I'm unlikely to revisit the establishment.

On the way home, my companion asks, "So, what did you think?"

I might respond, "Oh, it was absolutely decent," with a heavy emphasis on absolutely, particularly if I'm catching the vibe that my companion was equally unimpressed. At hearing absolutely, my friend might begin to wonder if I had a very different feeling, only to realize that, no, we both feel the same way after all.

"That's fine. We are on the track of something absolutely mediocre." (Billy Wilder, to Walter Matthau, after a take for The Fortune Cookie)

share|improve this answer
add comment

Grammatically there is nothing wrong with either statements.

As an example the following verbal exchange would be valid usage:

Person 1: "You're not really good, are you?"

Person 2: "I'm absolutely good!"

However I would agree that in almost all cases there are usually better usage alternatives as Rory Alsop suggests.

Even in the above example, a better response from person 2 is "I'm definitely good."

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.