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Absolutely: Is that a yes?

Sep 27, 2015

Bob from Kalamazoo's been wondering about something: What's going on with "absolutely?" Does it mean yes, no, or something else?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan delved into the question.

"Luckily for us, there was a study in 2007 by Hongyin Tao at UCLA, who used four spoken databases of American English to try to figure out what's going on with 'absolutely.' He looked at two ways 'absolutely' occurs," Curzan says.

"One he called the "dependent absolutely." This is when 'absolutely' occurs before an adjective, as in 'absolutely right,' 'absolutely perfect,' or 'absolutely wrong.'

The other he called the "dependent absolutely."

"This one would be the response to a question, when someone just says 'absolutely,' Curzan explains.

Tau found "absolutely" occurred with a positive adjective far more often than a negative one. 

"In other words, we're twice as likely to say 'absolutely great' or 'absolutely perfect' than 'absolutely impossible,' Curzan says.

Here's another word you're likely hearing a lot these days: "Perfect."

"If I go to a restaurant, the server will respond to my order with 'Perfect!' as if I've just made the most brilliant selection," Weekend Edition host Rina Miller says. 

Curzan says it's an enthusiastic affirmative, probably in an effort to be polite.

"It's kind of wonderful, because it makes you feel like you make the best choices."