I have stumbled upon a (for me) fascinatingly obscure semantic debate. Having used 'no absolute right' in a hypothetical sentence, I read it over by mistake as 'absolutely no right.' I had heard both variations used but was not certain of the difference.

You have no absolute right to a reply just because you posted a Q on ELU! (I interpret: We are not bound to give you an answer)

You have absolutely no right to a reply just because you posted a Q on ELU! (I interpret: We will decide at our sole discretion whether or not to give you an answer)

I could locate no sources online that seem to have addressed this difference, but found this amazing legal transcript regarding the right of civil servants to a pension, where the crux of the incredibly long and detailed argument was whether or not 'no absolute right' in the wording of the particular rule should be interpreted as 'absolutely no right'

Argument for the civil servants (petitioners): Just because the rule is worded as 'the civil servant has no absolute right to a pension', we cannot infer that he has 'absolutely no right,' as the State contends. (paraphrase)

Counter-argument by counsel for the State: Since the civil servant has 'no absolute right' to a pension, he has 'absolutely no right' to take legal recourse to secure the same, because the rule implicitly leaves the decision of granting a pension to the sole discretion of the State. (paraphrase)


In short it is no small matter. So can somebody tell me what is the fine difference?

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    No absolute right means you may have the right, but it is not an open and shut case in some absolute sense. Absolutely no right means that, without question, you do not have that right. – Yosef Baskin May 24 '17 at 13:20
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    Thanks for the quick and decisive comment. You would suggest that 'no absolute right' implies a 'relative right' -- which means there is a right, though not absolute -- that's what occurred to me as well, as a common sense interpretation, but in the case cited, the counter-argument chose to interpret that 'there is no such thing as a 'relative right' -- now I am inclined to think it is a weak interpretation. – English Student May 24 '17 at 13:33
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    When you have no right at all to something you bring to court, the court is likely to grant a summary dismissal to the other party, as in a frivolous lawsuit. If instead, the court is willing to hear arguments for that right, it means the right is open to interpretation, neither absolute nor absurd. There may be a relative right, to be decided. – Yosef Baskin May 24 '17 at 13:47
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    I take that to mean having 'no absolute right' although by no means definitive is a far better position to be in than having 'absolutely no right'! -- thanks again for the clarification. – English Student May 24 '17 at 13:50

Absolutely no right means "lack of any right whatever, lack of any right at all". Absoutely modifies no and characterizes the lack of right as absolute—the lack is unqualified under any circumstance.

No absolute right means "lack of an absolute right". Absolute modifies right and characterizes the right as absolute—the right is unqualified under any circumstance. No absolute right implies that some sort of right exists, but any right that exists may be qualified under some circumstances.

From a purely linguistic point of view, the State's argument is without merit. (This does not, however, preclude the existence of statute or case law which overrides the linguistic point.)

  • *Reposting my first comment which got deleted by mistake: *Thank you very much for a very quick and helpful reply. This is the difference that I was able to understand by my reasoning as well. Rather perplexingly, the counter-argument cited seems to contend that 'no absolute right' means the same as 'absolutely no right' because when the right is not absolute, then it is no longer a right but the decision is left to the discretion of the other party, although subject to certain conditions. Do you think they have made a valid (semantic not legal) interpretation in this case? – English Student May 24 '17 at 13:36
  • Many thanks for clearly stating that it is not a valid argument! As I understand you, if the right is not absolute, then the discretion to deny the right is also not absolute, as long as the rule does not state 'absolutely no right.' – English Student May 24 '17 at 13:37
  • @EnglishStudent I have incorporated my linguistic evaluation of the State's argument in my Answer. – StoneyB May 24 '17 at 13:43
  • Your decisive explanation of the 'fine difference' is highly appreciated. – English Student May 24 '17 at 13:44

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