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It is virtually impossible to escape this place!

I don't really understand what is virtually doing there. First, I can hardly tell what it means to be virtual, and second, I still don't see any extra value added to the sentence compared to

It is impossible to escape this place!

As far as I can tell, virtually seems to simply give emphasis to the current situation. But I'm lost.

According to http://www.thefreedictionary.com/virtual,

1 . Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name: the virtual extinction of the buffalo.

I don't get that meaning, and I certainly don't even understand the difference between the virtual extinction of the buffalo and the extinction of the buffalo. Now then, I may have grabbed the wrong definition. Here's the other one:

2 . Existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination. Used in literary criticism of a text.

This definition seems to suggest me that virtually is used to create some kind of psychological (of the mind) context. So when they say

It is virtually impossible to escape this place!

It is meant to say something like "even though it is physically possible to escape, people are too scared to even try to do it - therefore, it is rather impossible to escape".

Not sure. Any ideas about the usage of virtually?

Note: The context in the sentence I provided is basically this: It is from an article about a community where people are so poor that

It is virtually impossible to escape this place!

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Note: Virtual and Virtually are virtually antonymous. –  SF. Oct 24 '12 at 7:50
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You're over-thinking it. Virtual here means "in essence, but not in fact".

to clarify:

I certainly don't even understand the difference between the virtual extinction of the buffalo and the extinction of the buffalo.

Extinct means "no longer in existence; having died out." For the buffalo to be extinct, every last buffalo must have perished from the Earth.

The buffalo is not extinct. There are a few thousand of them left. They are virtually extinct.

It is virtually impossible to escape this place!

It's very, very difficult to escape, nigh on impossible, but nothing is completely impossible. Virtually nothing...

to clarify some more: I think virtually can be distinguished from almost, in that almost merely denotes quantitative proximity. If a bullet whizzed by your head, it almost killed you -- but there's a tremendous difference between being almost killed and actually being killed.

Virtually means the difference between the current state and the named state is detectable, but not significant. The buffalo is virtually extinct in the sense that it exists only in a few scattered domesticated herd. The continental masses of bison that once ruled the Great Plains, their essential buffalo-ness, are gone forever.

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Well, that's good to know. But I still don't get that in essence, but not in fact definition well as I mentioned in the question :( –  Omega Oct 24 '12 at 4:51
    
Your examples establish virtually as a synonym for almost. So what's the difference? –  Mr Lister Oct 24 '12 at 6:34
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@MrLister -- perhaps it's only a matter of degree. 99 is almost a hundred, but I don't think it's virtually one hundred. Virtually is akin to "for all practical purposes". –  Malvolio Oct 25 '12 at 0:38
    
+1 @Malvolio "for all practical purposes" (and I just noticed that you are the one who gave this answer. Probably you should include that to your answer?) –  justhalf Feb 13 at 5:01
    
Just because I love being a pedantic hair-splitter, it is not buffalo that are virtually extinct, but bison. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bison –  Cyberherbalist Feb 13 at 22:15
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In these contexts, virtually means "almost".

It is virtually [almost] impossible to escape this place!

and

It is impossible to escape this place!

are different. The first implies that it is possible, although very difficult. It is the same with your extinct sentence. If an animal is extinct, there are none left. If it is virtually, or almost, extinct, there are very few left and it will be extinct soon, unless something is done to prevent its decline.

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By "in essence, but not in fact", you should understand that you can escape that place but it draws so much attention that you'd never escape(say without visiting it).

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