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The phrase "certainly possible" is fairly common, but it strikes me as an oxymoron. Is it?

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    There was a thread on probabilities about 4 months back. Statements of likelihood in English are, in general, not subject to rigorous mathematical analysis, but are based on long-established idiomatic meanings. – Hot Licks Jul 14 '15 at 11:53
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    It certainly is not – Spork Jul 14 '15 at 12:13
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    @Spork, why would "certainly possible" not be an oxymoron, when "pretty ugly" and "awfully good" are? – Ben Hocking Jul 14 '15 at 12:27
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    @Kevin, "awfully" and "good" are in no way contradictory, but "awful" and "good" are. Similarly, "certain" and "possible" are somewhat contradictory, but "certainly possible" is not. Based off the answers here, it seems that almost everyone answering here would assert that neither "pretty ugly" nor "awfully good" are oxymorons, either. I feel like everyone is hung up on whether the phrase is a contradiction instead of whether it is an oxymoron. – Ben Hocking Jul 14 '15 at 21:49
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    @BenHocking Also, it's a bit off topic, but "pretty ugly" and "awfully good" are themselves contestable as oxymorons, since they depend on an unrelated double meaning, from a different usage of one word. The best oxymorons don't, and that's what makes them interesting: they're genuine thought-provoking juxtapositions of opposing ideas. For example, "deafening silence", "honest deception", "cruel kindness", "wilful ignorance", "definitely maybe", "wonderfully awful"... or the original oxymoron "sharp foolishness". Maybe that's one for another question? – user568458 Jul 14 '15 at 22:38

15 Answers 15

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No, it's a sensible phrase that tells you two separate things: a) the speaker believes X is possible, b) the speaker is emphasizing a very high level of certainty about this belief.

There's no apparent contradiction necessary for an oxymoron because certainty and possibility are different, non-exclusive, non-dependent things. We can give an example for every combination of a level of certainty and a level of possibility:

  • Solar powered air travel is certainly possible. It's not commercially viable yet, but there's a concept plane that proves it can be done.
  • Hoverboards are probably possible, but I don't know how they could work except over a magnetic surface.
  • Teleportation might be possible. There are a couple of mechanisms by which it theoretically might work, but it might well not actually be possible to engineer, though it's hard to see how this impossibility could ever be proved. For the foreseeable future, it'll remain a definite maybe.
  • Time travel is probably impossible, it barely makes logical sense. But I'd love to be proved wrong.
  • Perpetual motion machines are certainly impossible, they defy fundamental laws of physics.

Of course in day to day use, the phrase "certainly possible" is usually more about subtext, often in the context of "That's certainly possible, but not easy", where the certainty about the possibility is contrasted with some complicating factor or caveat, often to stress willingness (implying "I'm not trying to be awkward here and I do absolutely 100% agree that X is possible, but...").

For example:

  • You'd like to change your booking? Of course, I'll do that right now [this is easy and routine]
  • You'd like to change your booking? That's certainly possible, I'll just talk you through the procedure [I'm extremely confident it can be done, but there might be complications that might make you reconsider your choice. I'm stressing the fact it's definitely possible so you know that I'm happy to go through those complications if that's your choice, so that you don't think I'm being obstructive or trying to talk you out of it]
  • You'd like to change you booking? That's probably possible, I'll just check with my supervisor [I'm not completely confident that it can be done, you should start thinking about what you will do if it is not possible]

"Certainly probable" could be argued as being an oxymoron, because like the popular oxymoron "Definitely maybe", both parts relate to probability or certainty.

But probability and possibility are different things. Successfully arguing that "certainly possible" is an oxymoron is probably impossible ;-).

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    At issue isn't whether "certainly possible" is a contradiction, but if it is an oxymoron, in the same manner as "pretty ugly". I've yet to see any answer either 1) claim that "pretty ugly" is not an oxymoron (which @oerkelens has in his comments to my answer), or 2) explain how "certainly possible" differs in construction from "pretty ugly" (or "awfully good"). It seems that everyone is hung up on whether the phrase is a contradiction instead of whether the phrase is an oxymoron. – Ben Hocking Jul 14 '15 at 21:01
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    Dude, last two paragraphs. Oxymoron=apparent contradiction: "pretty" and "ugly" are both (when "pretty" is used in a difference context) about beauty, hence the (apparent) contradiction, but certainty and possibility are different things, as shown in the examples. – user568458 Jul 14 '15 at 21:22
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    The 2nd paragraph of this answer links to a definition of oxymoron ("in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction") but then argues on the basis of a criterion that is not present in that definition: that the terms not refer to "different, non-exclusive, non-dependent things." The linked dictionary defines "in conjunction" simply as "together." There is no requirement that the apparently contradictory terms refer to the same thing, or to dependent things. Therefore by the linked definition, "certainly possible" is an oxymoron. – LarsH Jul 17 '15 at 13:41
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    @benhocking I think the main point here is that it's not even an apparrent contradiction. Something that is pretty cannot also be ugly so there is an apparrent contradiction. Something that is certain is by necessity possible, and saying something is possible only denies certainty via subtext. I'd say it's closer to the opposite of an oxymoron - an apparrent tautology. – Jeff Jul 17 '15 at 20:37
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    As I see it, an oxymoron is not determined by the capacity to interpret a phrase without incongruence, but rather by 1) the capacity to interpret a phrase with incongruence, and 2) whether or not the incongruent possibility is employed with knowledge and intent. To knowingly and intentionally use a phrase with incongruent potential is to employ rhetorical device, whereas to employ a phrase like ‘certainly possible’ without intending incongruence is merely an artless or uninformed use of the language. – user98990 Jul 17 '15 at 21:50
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No, the "certainly" modifies the possibility, meaning that it's certain that there's a non-zero probability of the event's occurrence.

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    I disagree. "certainly" reflects the opinion of the speaker. It has no effect on the actual possiblity of the event. – chasly from UK Jul 14 '15 at 8:51
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    Of course the language has no effect on the possibility. How could it? This is a question of the semantics of the word "possibility." Sometimes you know whether there's a possibility and sometimes you don't. In the former case, you can determine its non-null nature with certainty, and in the latter, you have no idea about it. In 1990, mathematicians might have said that it was possible that elliptical function theory might lead to the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem; none of them would have said it was certainly possible. In hindsight, it had probability 1. – deadrat Jul 14 '15 at 9:04
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    @chaslyfromUK Gramatically certainly is an adverb modifying the adjective possible. I don't see any ground for your assumption that somehow there is a semantic shift here. – oerkelens Jul 14 '15 at 9:06
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    How does "certainly" acting as a modifier differ from the classic oxymorons of "pretty ugly" or "awfully good"? – Ben Hocking Jul 14 '15 at 9:50
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    @oerkelens: I guess it's similar to "I am hopefully free on that day", which means "I hope that I am free on that day", not "I am free on that day in a hopeful way". I think the suggestion is that "It is certainly possible" means "I am certain that it is possible", just as "It is hopefully possible" would mean "I hope that it is possible". – psmears Jul 14 '15 at 10:32
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I don't think it is an oxymoron. The 'certainly' does not apply to the thing that is possible - it relates to the judgement of the speaker.

Example

So you want to build a tunnel through the mountain? I don't believe that is physically possible.

Oh I am certain it is possible - it just requires sufficient investment.

OR

Oh it is certainly possible - it just requires sufficient investment.

  • Something is possible'or not possible. It can't be very or little possible. Possible does not refer to a percentage of likelihood. – user66974 Jul 14 '15 at 7:28
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    @Josh61 - Hi and thanks for your comment. I did not claim that there are degrees of possibility. I am talking about degrees of certainty. E.g. "I am certain this can be done" versus "I am not certain this can be done." To stick more to the original - "I am certain this is possible." versus "I am uncertain this is possible" – chasly from UK Jul 14 '15 at 8:36
  • Although your two versions are semantically close, grammatically they are very different. The only way that an adverb modifying an adjective refers to the speaker's opinion is that any statement is a reflection of the speaker's opinion. But in that way, also possible refers to the speaker's judgement. – oerkelens Jul 14 '15 at 9:08
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    I disagree with your final sentence. Imagine a layman has a vague memory of reading about human-powerd flight. Layman: "Human powered flight may be possible. I'm not really sure." The actual possibility of human flight may be known by experts (or by God) but the layman doesn't know if it is possible. He is expressing uncertainty about a possibility. This uncertainty is at a meta-level. – chasly from UK Jul 14 '15 at 9:41
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I'll disagree with the other answers and argue that it is an oxymoron, in the same way that jumbo shrimp, awfully good, pretty ugly, and other classic oxymorons are. Oxymoron does not mean contradiction, it means:

a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly.”.

Note the use of the word seemingly. I think certainly possible qualifies.

Adding for emphasis: the phrase "certainly possible" seems to me to have the same constructive logic as "pretty ugly" or "awfully good", both of which are recognized by every list of oxymorons I looked at as being oxymorons.

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    But to me there doesn't seem to be any contradiction, seemingly or not, also in your other examples. A jumbo shrimp is huge (otherwise jumbo jet is also an oxymoron since it's small compared to Mt.Everest), and awfully and pretty in those examples mean very before anything else. I don't really see the use of extending the definition, like yourdictionary does, to include such examples of not seeming but rather contrived contradiction. – oerkelens Jul 14 '15 at 9:42
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    @oerkelens oxymorons are not actual contradictions but only seeming contradictions, where by seeming, I mean that one can read the phrases out of context in a contradictory manner. As you say, "pretty ugly" is not a contradiction at all, but it is a very classic example of an oxymoron. There might be an exception, but all of the oxymorons that come immediately to my mind fall into this same category: they are only contradictions if one misunderstands them. – Ben Hocking Jul 14 '15 at 9:48
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    @Ben Hocking, pretty is not an adverb, it is an adjective in the oxymoron. – cuddlyable3 Jul 14 '15 at 23:43
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    Ironically, "awful" has an arguably-obsolete positive meaning. So "awfully good" and "awfully bad" are both oxymorons, in this sense of juxtaposing words whose connotations are opposed :-) Similarly "fast runner" alongside "run slowly", since "fast" can mean "unable to move", and in "pretty ugly" we read it as an oxymoron by knowingly taking the meaning of the word not ostensibly intended. Right? – Steve Jessop Jul 15 '15 at 0:09
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    Ben, I'm with you on this one. Oxymoron (in the more traditional meaning) is a figure of speech, intended to produce an effect. So a phrase that can be (mis)understood as incongruous qualifies as oxymoron. Of course the more noticeable the incongruity, the less "contrived" the oxymoron is. – LarsH Jul 17 '15 at 12:57
4

No.

"Certain and possible" could be interpreted as an oxymoron.1

"Certainly possible" is not.


1 Actually, depending on how strictly you use the term "possible", even this may not be so; something that is certain is generally also possible, by extension. After all, if it were not possible, how could it also be certain?

3

No oxymoron (there is no real or seeming contradiction), and no redundancy.

"Certainly" in the phrase marks the attitude of the speaker to the possibility or to the whole phrase.

As such, it can be seen as an intensifier:

a modifier that makes no contribution to the propositional meaning of a clause but serves to enhance and give additional emotional context to the word it modifies.

Similarly, we might say "It is quite possible." etc.

Or, one can read it as a expression of an epistemic modality, whereby it modifies not the word "possible" but the whole phrase. In a similar manner, with a phrase such as "She is going to win.", while it is perhaps true that either she is going to win or not, still there are a plethora of words or phrases that the speaker can use to express their attitude to the proposition: "Of course she is going to win." "She is perhaps going to win." etc.

A mere "It is possible." seems quite weak: it may signify lack of interest on the speaker's part. Whereas "It is certainly possible." marks the active conviction of the speaker that the event in question is possible.

  • Actually the 'cretainly' is not so much an 'intensifier' as a 'modifier' : It announces that while sth. is possible there are good reasons to not e.g. expect it to happen. – TaW Jul 19 '15 at 17:38
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Certainly possible is absolutely not an oxymoron. Using a previously referenced requirement of an "incongruous, contradictory effect," one could make cases that similar statements such as "certainly impossible" or "unlikely possible" might themselves be oxymorons. However, in order to be certain something would need first be possible, meaning that certainties are actually a subset of possibilities, i.e., part and parcel of each other. This at best speaks clearly for congruity and exhibits nothing in the way of contradiction. While initially thought provoking, the concept of a perceived oxymoron bears up to very little scrutiny in this situation.

1

Taking "certainly" to be the same as "necessarily", it's meaningful to say something is necessarily possible (though it is not necessarily true that it is). Since it is a truth of logic that whatever is necessarily so is possibly so, then any truth of logic will be necessarily possible, because not only is it possible, but since its possibility follows as a matter of logic, its possibility is also necessary.

1

Oxford Dictionaries online defines oxymoron as a “figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.” That definition hinges on the adverb ‘apparently,’ which Oxford defines as: 1. as far as one knows or can see (Oxford defines ‘apparent’ as: 1.1. seeming real or true, but not necessarily so).

So then, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, an oxymoron is not determined by the capacity to interpret a phrase without incongruence but rather by 1) the capacity to interpret a phrase with incongruence, and 2) whether or not the incongruent possibility is employed with knowledge and intent.

To knowingly and intentionally use a phrase with incongruent potential is to employ rhetorical device, whereas to employ a phrase like ‘certainly possible’ without intending the incongruence is merely an artless or uninformed use of the language.

1

"Certain possibility" says that the speaker knows that the probability of something's happenning is strictly greater than nought. The speaker asserts the conditional probability, given all his/her current knowledge, is strictly positive. Almost always it also implies that they do not foresee the conditional probability's changing on the acquistion of further data. It often translates to "it is known to happen, but not always" (and, most often "known to happen, but seldom").

"Possible" unqualified betokens the speaker's belief of a positive probability, but an openness on the question of whether further data or knowledge might show the conjectured eventuality to be impossible.

However, when one gets down to subtle distinctions like this, it is almost essential to resort to strict full statements of statistical confidence levels and the knowledge/ assumptions they are conditioned on. Probability is amongst the most subtle of all concepts in science, has several like, but quite distinct meanings and its full understanding is indeed is a work in progress. See the articles "Change vs Randomness" and "Bayesian Epistemology" at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

1

As mentioned elsewhere,

It depends

I'm very late to this and can't expect to swing a 140+ vote difference, but the lead answers are still wrong. "Oxymoron" is not a philosophical or logical term of art; it's a rhetorical one.

Thus saith the OED:

1. Rhetoric. A pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms placed in conjunction for emphasis.

2. Any contradiction in terms.

The second is metaphorical and irrelevant—the examples given are "the hardworking loafer that is the colonial Dutchman" (1902), "healthful Mexican food" (1989), and "affordable caviar" (1993)—but the first, the word's original sense going back to its first attestation in Servius, is concerned with intent and effect, not logical reasoning.

Logically, of course, anything certain is necessarily possible. Rhetorically, if something is certain we do n̲o̲t̲ call it "possible". "Possible" is used for expressing the contingency of a thing or state of affairs—for saying that it is not impossible but also not certain. Of course the word is being used in precisely that way in @user568458's examples above. That poster's examples switched from adverbs to "might be possible" in order to avoid the normal and parallel phrasing "possibly possible" because it points out the mistake in the reasoning being presented. "Possible" and "certain" are usually understood as intending varying degrees of certainty, not entirely separate concepts.

Oxymoron is a rhetorical term: what matters is intent and effect. For OP, if "certainly possible" sounds like an oxymoron, it is one. For, user568458, checking down a list of various degrees of possible, it isn't one.

And in fact, for most English speakers, we'll use and process the term just as user568458 described without giving it a second thought. The phrase won't be used as—or understood as—an oxymoron to most of us.

But that doesn't invalidate that there is a contradictory sense of "possible" that user568458 was denying, that there are people like the OP who will initially process the phrase on those terms, and that "certainly possible" does function as an oxymoron for them.

  • Well you make the case better than the comments did, but it essentially seems to boil down to a philosophical question, "Do oxymorons come from the meanings of the words used, or are they in the eye of the beholder?". Regarding "possibly possible", it is a fun pairing of words, but "possibly" used like this relates to probability only by indicating "there is nothing we can say about this thing's probability beyond that it is possible" - i.e., "it's possible that it's possible but we don't know how probable it is". I don't think there is any one neat clean adverb for "intermediate probability". – user568458 Apr 21 '17 at 9:15
  • I suppose if you accept that usage of "possibly" as a description of probability, it does contrast with "certainly", but it's a different word to "possible". "Possibly certain" is certainly probable to be an oxymoron (as is "certainly probable"), since both words certainly have a possible usage about probability... – user568458 Apr 21 '17 at 9:17
  • @user568458 That seems ill-taken on two separate levels. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 21:00
  • First, there is no "philosophical question" involved. "Oxymoron" definitionally means a particular rhetorical device, which requires that it intend or illustrate the desired effect. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 21:02
  • Second, you're similarly continuing to ignore the fact that "possible" and "possibly" are precisely the English adjective and adverb for "of intermediate probability". It's fine if you opt to eschew that sense of the word, but it still exists... as shown by the OED cite and the existence of this question. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 21:05
0

"Certainly possible" is not a unit, as "pretty ugly" is. When one says "it's certainly possible" the assertion that it is possible is being modified; that is, "certainly" is not a modifier of "possible"--clearer if we say "certainly it's possible". It is something of an abbreviation for "It is certain that it is possible".

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    Pretty is a modifier of ugly just as much as certainly is a modifier of possible. Pretty is an intensifier just like very is. – tchrist Jul 15 '15 at 4:35
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Oxymoron:

  • a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly.”.

The expression certainly possible does not show contradictory effects, but it may be described as a redundant expression:

  • characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas.

(dictionary.reference.com)

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    -1 for 'redundant'. I believe that the addition of 'certainly' changes the meaning at a meta-level. It reflects certainty of the speaker's opinion - not certainty of the event. If this were not so then the word 'certainly' would always be redundant and of no use in the language. – chasly from UK Jul 14 '15 at 7:15
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    Something is possible'or not possible. It can't be very or little possible. Possible does not refer to a percentage of likelihood. – – user66974 Jul 14 '15 at 7:31
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    Physicists have succeeded in making transuranic elements up to and including eka-radium, element 118. Quantum mechanics allows us to state that it is certainly possible to make elements beyond 118. There is speculation that some of these elements will be more stable than other transuranic elements and have unusual chemical properties, but neither of those things is certainly possible. It could be that instability will always increase with atomic number and that there are no new types of chemistry. – deadrat Jul 14 '15 at 8:30
  • @deadrat - if you remove certainly from the sentence, does the meaning change? – user66974 Jul 14 '15 at 8:33
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    I propose calling an apparent redundancy such as "certainly possible" a "moxiehoron", from "moxie", meaning aggressive, and "horon", meaning dancing around in a circle. (I think we've fairly aggressively danced around this one for quite a while now.) – Hot Licks Jul 15 '15 at 17:35
0

Yes.

Oxymoron: a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings

It is a recognizable phrase, and certainly and possible have opposite meanings. Hence, it is an oxymoron.

Oxymorons are not contradictions. "Jumbo shrimp" and "pretty ugly" are widely recognizable oxymorons. The words apply to different things. They are not contradictions; they are oxymorons.


FYI, certainly possible is a nonsensical expression when applied to a random event such as the probability of the probability being greater than 0 is 1.

But if applied to a future event with non-randomness, it makes sense.

"Can I get an A in this class?"

"It is certainly possible."

"It is probably possible."

"It might be possible."

"It is probably not possible."

"It is certainly not possible."

The expressions describe the likelihood that the student will get an A if he does everything possible to try.

  • I'm not sure whether to upvote this. What do you mean by "a random event"? Because the occurrence of a hurricane on a particular day three years from now is random but, depending on the month, certainly possible. Randomness doesn't seem to have anything to do with the concept. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:28
  • Occurrence in the future also seems irrelevant. We could equally well talk about it certainly being possible for the Romans to develop steam engines. What's important is relative certainty as to the degree of possibility of an uncertain event, whenever and wherever. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:31
  • That said, your analysis of oxymoron is correct. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:31
-1

"Certainly possible" is simply the speaker verifying that "yes, it is possible." Possible is yes or no, there's no "degree" of it either way. The phrase requires a target to operate properly; i.e., "What is possible?" "This is." Is it possible? Yes. So "It is certainly possible," works just fine.

My take on language/grammar is a practical one (unless it's some kind of contract/etc.). It's my language, it works for me, not I for it. Screw how the book says it should be written; if I am unclear in my meaning, that's my fault. Obey all grammar Nazi rules and still fail to communicate clearly? That's pointless legalism.

I have little use for people who communicate empty language; I communicate with language. Like a shipping container that require contents to be meaningful at its destination, it is just a container my thoughts ride in, on their way from me to you.

  • See @user568458's post. There are degrees of possibility. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:33
  • Do remember that you do not only communicate the content of your ideas with your language. You also communicate about yourself. Off-topic ranting about your politico-linguistic beliefs should BE WRITTEN IN ALL-CAPS to clarify your determination and to allow other readers to avoid such posts. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:37

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