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I'm a student studying English abroad. I couldn't understand something while reading an English article. I don't know why "about" was used in the emboldened sentence. Isn't "that's been the strangest thing" fine? I've thought "about" meant "concerning" or "nearly", but I think neither is right in this case. Therefore, please explain to me the meaning of that.

Utah officials found a mysterious metal pillar in remote Red Rock Country in the southeastern part of the state while flying by helicopter on a routine search for sheep. Officials said they had no idea how the 10- to 12-foot-tall block of metal got there. "That's been about the strangest thing that I've come across out there in all my years of flying," helicopter pilot Bret Hutchings told KSL TV.

Besides, in the same sentence, isn't it better to use "is" rather than "has been"? I think using "is" looks more natural.

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    See: about (adverb)
    – Cascabel
    Dec 7 '20 at 14:51
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    'Nearly' is the sense here. Of all the strange things the pilot has seen during his career, this is almost the strangest. You're right, it is unusual to use has been rather than is or was in this kind of sentence. Dec 7 '20 at 15:37
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    It would be better said adding 'just'; "just about" Dec 7 '20 at 16:01
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    Yes, this use of about means nearly, or approximately. Dec 7 '20 at 16:06
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    @ncmathsadist No; it's fine as it is, but like you I'd opt for the 'just about' version. I suspect neither of us is from Utah. Dec 7 '20 at 17:12
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In this case, "about" is used in the sense of "approximately" or "nearly" (almost) and similar words, as mentioned in a comment. This is a valid meaning; the phrasing is somewhat colloquial/idiomatic, perhaps more common in some regions. As the question mentions, the sentence works perfectly well without the word, but becomes definite rather than almost definite.

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You said you know "about" to mean "concerning" or "nearly". Here, it means "nearly":

That's been nearly the strangest thing that I've come across out there in all my years of flying.

However, that's not all. The connotation to using "about the ..." is that it is informal, fitting in to a laid-back, friendly talk. Though your extract is from the BBC article Metal monolith found by helicopter crew in Utah desert, it comes from a witness of the monolith and not a professional writer. The witness uses this expression to emphasise the sheer oddness of the monolith.

This is one of many such figures of speech exclusive to spoken language.

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  • Who told you about used in this sense is informal and "laid-back"? I have seen it used in this sense in the writings of many a good writer. And what is the figure of speech here? @niamulbengali Dec 8 '20 at 13:44
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    The whole sentence sounds kind of "folksy".
    – Barmar
    Dec 8 '20 at 16:29
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    "exclusive to spoken language" isn't really how I'd describe this usage of "about"
    – Paul H
    Dec 9 '20 at 2:23
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This is actually the very first meaning given in Merriam-Webster's:

about

adverb

Definition of about (Entry 1 of 3)

1a : reasonably close to
about a year ago

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Your second question, why use "has been" instead of "is", is also connected to the colloquialism. The speaker is reporting on the sequence of strange events he has experienced over his flying career, so the verb used implies a duration of time.

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I disagree with other answers. While they are close to the meaning of 'about', in context the speaker doesn't mean 'nearly' or 'almost'. Better substitutes in the given passage would be 'likely' or 'quite possibly'.

The speaker is indicating that this is the strangest thing he can immediately remember. It's possible that sometime, back in the past, he did see a stranger sight, but if so he cannot remember it now. The 'about' (instead of simply saying "That's the strangest thing that I've come across ...") allows that wiggle room, just in case his colleague pipes up to remind him of that day they flew past the flying unicorn (for instance).

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