My student said "My first choice is completely Oxford" but I corrected it by changing the word "completely" to something else such as "absolutely".

I said that it would be more natural, but I'm not sure how to explain why I made that correction in detail.

Can someone please help me explain it better? Thank you!

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    You are right to trust your ear for conversation. While 'completely' gets the point across, what is complete, the choices? The first choice is completely the first, or the only choice? It is clearer to say my first choice is absolutely Oxford, no question about that as my first choice. – Yosef Baskin Jul 19 '17 at 19:14
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    Actually, to the Great Unwashed here in the US midlands, "Oxford" is a meaningless term. Are you talking about a dictionary, a university, or a shoe? – Hot Licks Jul 19 '17 at 19:29
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    When I first read the title, I thought that the question involved a hiring manager talking about a candidate. – Global Charm Jul 19 '17 at 20:32
  • Ah, sorry everyone I should have provided more clarity. My Japanese student is going to have an MBA interview at Oxford university tomorrow and he practiced some interview questions with me. When I asked him "Did you apply for other schools?", he answered with "To be honest, I am interested in Canbridge as well, but my first choice is completely Oxford". – Anna Jul 19 '17 at 21:30
  • @Yosef Baskin I think so too. But it was hard to explain why I would choose ABSOLUTELY instead since it's synonymous in terms of grammar and meaning with COMPLETELY. – Anna Jul 19 '17 at 21:31

Could your first choice be partially Oxford? If no, then it cannot be completely Oxford either.

I would understand the sentence "My first choice is completely Oxford" as "My first choice for this job hire is a very Oxford person, totally and completely Oxford through and through. He/she is a died-in-the-wool Oxford grad."

If you are trying to say "My first choice of universities I want to attend is Oxford" it should be "My first choice is absolutely Oxford."

  • I see! I'll show your explanation to my student. Thank you. – Anna Jul 19 '17 at 21:34

"Completely" generally means that something is maximal on a scale - which is probably why your student assumed it would be appropriate - but usually precedes an adjective rather than a noun (completely full, completely straight, completely dry). Some adjectives don't correspond to scales with clear endpoints, which is why "completely tall", "completely wide", etc. sound a bit off. Search for "the completely test" to find some interesting linguistic commentary on this subject.


Japanese people have some verbs whose English equivalents are close to completely or absolutely, with some middle ground. However, "completely" is not the accurate description because "completely" describes a state that can be quantified (and "completely" might describe "totally" or "100%"), whereas "absolutely" is a black-or-white term that is a state of totality or not at all. You might want to emphasize that the meaning of "absolutely" leans towards the feeling of "certainly" and away from "completely".

As a side note, "totally" is a colloquialism that for some reason we use, though it's probably not correct for the same reasons despite our usage of it in a similar fashion.

Now I'm curious what his sentence would be in Japanese...


This is not meant to be a definitive answer, and is based on dialect as opposed to proper English grammar--more of a commentary than an answer per se.

In colloquial American English, "completely Oxford" would be easily understood in the sense of "totally Oxford". ("Totally" has been a popular term in colloquial American English.) Thus is works, but perhaps not in the context in which you intend to use it, where more words are necessary to convey the precise meaning.

  • "Absolutely Oxford" is superior because of the alliterative quality

It has a better ring, but is not otherwise distinct structurally, so far as I know, in that completely and absolutely are both adverbs and synonyms.

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    If it's "easily understood", what the heck does it mean? – Hot Licks Jul 19 '17 at 19:44
  • In this sense it means "I am 100% committed to Oxford as a choice." – DukeZhou Jul 19 '17 at 19:51
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    Well, they're nice shoes, but I don't think many people wear them anymore. – Hot Licks Jul 19 '17 at 20:17
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    That was my first thought! It reminded me of colloquial American English when I heard my student say "My first choice is completely Oxford". So that's what I was thinking of! I agree that it has a better ring, but I guess grammatically speaking both ABSOLUTELY and COMPLETELY work..? They are synonyms and boh adverbs after all. I wonder if this is just a matter of it sounding more natural or precise in terms of what the student wants to say. – Anna Jul 19 '17 at 21:38
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    @AnnaMinkova Yes, your idea toward the end of your comment is correct. That's basically what's happening. It sounds more idiomatic to native speakers b/c that is how we talk; and therefore that is what we hear all the time. – Kace36 Jul 20 '17 at 7:31

(1)The clausal adverb "completely" must modify a verb, but (2)"My first choice is Oxford" has no verb to modify.

On (1), I rely on McCawley's classification of adverbs (see p. 197 and elsewhere in The Syntactic Phenomena of English).

On (2), although "is" bears a tense, which is a morphological characteristic of verbs, it is an auxiliary and behaves syntactically unlike true verbs.

  • This appears to be an excellent answer, but could be improved with a conclusion. – DukeZhou Jul 20 '17 at 17:28
  • Which is why the original is confusing. "Completely Oxford" is treating "Oxford" as an adjective, and hence "Oxford" is taken to be a descriptive term rather than a conventional noun. – Hot Licks Jul 22 '17 at 2:16
  • @HotLicks, yes. I intended "clausal adverb" to exclude the interpretation that "completely" is an adjective inside a NP or AdjP. – Greg Lee Jul 22 '17 at 5:21

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