Not Entirely Correct

Imagine two friends engaged in a conversation about politics. One expresses his view that corporate tax rates have never been higher and the other replies, Well, that’s not entirely correct. With this simple response, the speaker has risked conjuring the Furies for a crime of confusion, and it might help us all to sort out what exactly is going on here.

It is important always to remember that language carries meaning in a context. Words and phrases work by virtue of their relationship and proximity to other words. Together they weave a mental world (indeed the word context is derived from the Latin texo, to weave or to braid), and that world of woven meaning binds together only to the extent that its implications make sense. An implication (that word too, meaning entwined, derives from the textile arts) is what is suggested, and as close readers, we expect to be able to follow the thread, as we say, of an argument or statement.

In our example, our first friend has begun with a strong thread: corporate tax rates have never been higher. The statement can easily be confirmed or disproved; with some quick research, we can know with certainty whether, in fact, the corporate rate is unprecedentedly high. The assertion, in other words, is categorical and unqualified, and that should determine the nature of his friend’s reply: either accept the fact and offer an argument despite it, or deny—and prove the denial—that it is a fact at all.

Instead, however, the friend of our corporate friend has sewn some confusion with the adverb entirely. Adverbs modify adjectives (as they do verbs and other adverbs), and some adjectives, like unique, complete, perfect, cannot be modified because their meaning cannot be qualified: either something is or is not unique, complete, or perfect. Such words are called absolute adjectives. But other adjectives, like correct, can become absolute when the context renders them such. So when our speaker asserts that his friend is not entirely correct, the adverb entirely means to say that his statement is not correct in every respect. But in what other respect could this categorical assertion be understood? Either the corporate tax rate has never been higher or it has. His reply, in other words, has not been woven into what his friend actually said; he has assumed a qualification it does not admit.

Now there is a way to defend our second friend, and that is by saying that his reply is more rhetorical than it is logical; that by rejoining that’s not entirely correct, he meant only to politely introduce a correction, and that had we more of the conversation, we would see that he went on to offer qualifications to the outright view of his interlocutor. That, indeed, would satisfy our worries and return the Furies to their lairs.

But close readers and listeners pay attention to what someone has stated and build their replies accordingly. This requires us to be aware of both the denotation of statements, their direct and indicative meaning, and also their connotation, what statements concurrently suggest and imply. We can rightfully speak of linguistic worlds of meaning, and the linguistic world, like the real one, can be a confusing place if we do not first launch from what someone else has actually said, taking into account the actual assertion and its implications, and then adding our thread to the weave they have begun. Otherwise, we are soliloquizing, and our conversations will become merely patchworks.


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