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That was the extent of what I recalled.

That was about the extent of what I recalled.

Do the mean the same? If not, what's the difference?

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2 Answers 2

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The meanings are extremely similar.

The first one is finite. The person is stating that this all they recalled, nothing more could be extracted from their memory.

The second one is less finite. The word about serves as a modification meaning approximately or nearly. The person is stating that this is nearly everything they recalled. If pressed, they might remember some other detail, but it would be unlikely to be relevant.

For the most part, the two can be used nearly interchangeably, the main difference being the way the speaker likes to portray their level of certainty about what they are saying. In other words, in practical usage they are fairly equivalent, but the usage does tend to reflect the underlying psychology of the speaker.

I, for instance, would tend to use the second because I dislike sounding finite.

(BTW - If you look at the structure of the sentence I just wrote, I demonstrate my tendencies right there: would tend to use, as opposed to I always use.)

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  • How do you draw these inferences? Where from? What definition of about applies in this analysis? Can you help with some references? While it all makes perfect sense, the question of 'Why' remains.
    – Kris
    Feb 19, 2014 at 7:14
  • @Kris, "about" in this context is synonymous with "approximately". e.g. "He was about 6 feet tall" Feb 19, 2014 at 7:41
  • @JeffreyKemp Agreed, I had known that. However, that doesn't explain. In this context, about has a different connotation. Without an explanation of that, I'm afraid this cannot count for an answer.
    – Kris
    Feb 19, 2014 at 9:10
  • @Kris I will edit to reflect that, but I would argue that the word about here is being used according to its dictionary definition and strictly speaking does not need explanation.
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 12:38
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In OP's context, about [the extent of] is a...

verbal hedge - a word or phrase that makes statements less forceful or assertive.
Contrast with
boosting and intensifier.

At the "literal" level, one might suppose that what the speaker means is "that" (whatever was said earlier) is all true, but that if pressed he might recall additional details (going further in "extent"). In practice that's unlikely; he probably just means his recollection tallies "reasonably closely" with "that" (which might be a transcript of what he said earlier, or someone else's testimony).

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  • If you painstakingly trim that hedge, it can become a verbal topiary!
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 14:33
  • @David: Okay - I've added all the trimmings, since I think your own answer risks taking the semantic content too literally. Feb 19, 2014 at 14:41
  • I thought I tried to make it clear that it was mostly a speaker's choice rather than a literal level of certainty. I will edit to clarify that.
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 14:45
  • As to the semantic content: I've always been trained to speak as though giving a courtroom deposition. As such, an attorney (I guess you folks prefer barrister) will insinuate a literality to every statement you make, intended or not. It would seem like making finite statements is of benefit in this situation, but, if you later hedge it will seem like a lie. If you hedge early, you can lean on your hedge later.
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 14:51
  • @David: Well, lawyers can and will wring every last drop of "literality" from a usage if it suits their case. But in regard to the specific usage we're looking at here, I've no doubt the opposing lawyer would be able to successfully argue for the "reasonably close match" interpretation (not the "precise match, to the level of detail actually presented" interpretation) if that suited his case. The jury's decision would hopefully turn on other contextual information (hopefully not "If the defendant's a famous black guy like OJ Simpson we'd better acquit for fear of being thought racist" :) Feb 19, 2014 at 15:36

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