Everything Language and Grammar

Definite Possibility

Posted by languageandgrammar on April 26, 2008

An oxymoron is the pairing of two or more words to create a meaning that is contradictory or seems to be contradictory. A couple of examples of oxymorons that seem contradictory include objective opinion, speed bump, and jumbo shrimp. (For what is billed as the “largest list of oxymorons collected online,” please visit oxymoronlist.com.) These, however, are logical pairings of words, and since they’re logical, they are reasonable ways to communicate. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a few jumbo shrimp in a scampi sauce now.

Some oxymorons don’t just seem to be contradictory; they are contradictory, which renders them ineffective as communication tools–that would be illogical communication, to coin my own oxymoron. To me, the always-popular definite possibility falls into that category since there is no logical reason to pair the certainty associated with the word definite and the uncertainty associated with the word possibility. How can something be certain and uncertain at the same time? We would never pair the equally contradictory possibly definite in any instance.

I understand that the intention is to express a smaller amount of uncertainty, such as a house shopper might say This house is a definite possibility about a house that nearly meets all of the family’s needs and is worth further consideration. A better way to express it, though, would be to say This house is a distinct possibility since it expresses the intended thought without the obvious contradiction.

–Paul

Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever and Sherry’s Grammar List

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3 Responses to “Definite Possibility”

  1. brian said

    I dunno… I think of the “possibility” in “definite possibility” as meaning “option”, or just as a noun form of “possible.”

    If the family has enough money to buy the house, it is definitely possible for them to buy the house. .. and thus since they are trying to buy a house, as a different part of speech, buying the house is a definite possibility. It has not yet been ruled out.

    I don’t really see this oxymoron as being an attempt to express a smaller amount of uncertainty as you suggest.

    Say you have a list of houses you want to buy, and you’re crossing addresses off the list. Some are possible, some aren’t (maybe you don’t have enough money, maybe they won’t fit all of your family members, etc). Some might be possible (your waiting to see how much money the bank will give you), and some are definite possibilities, definite options, definitely exist on the list of potential outcomes to the decision making process.

    I agree though that in many cases “distinct possibility” can be better.

    anyways though, what I’m more concerned with is “objective opinion.” I even see it in an example on dictionary.com:

    5. not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.”

    I don’t like it. An opinion is by definition subjective. It defies the meaning of the word objective. ..though, the other definitions demonstrate a clearer contrast than does this #5.

    If someone, objectively speaking, makes a mistake in a performance, you will probably do a better job of ranking their performance by consulting a team of judges. This still doesn’t make any judges “opinions” objective.

    Let’s say the performer slipped up, and three judges saw the performer slip up, and two didn’t. Objectively speaking, the performer slipped up (fell down or said the wrong lines or something). well, this isn’t a case of opinion. The performer definitely slipped up. Asking the judges what they saw, you could say you’re asking for their “objective” observances, but not for their “opinions.” Two of them might even be wrong, but you’re still asking them objectively whether or not the performer fell.

    If the judges are particularly well selected, educated, unbiased, and unemotional, then hopefully they will judge the performance “objectively,” as in, *not* based on opinions, which would be inherently subjective.

    If you then ask the judges which performance was prettier, then you are asking them for their subjective opinions. No matter how educated or unbiased the judges are, I don’t see how you can call an opinion objective.

    “2+2=4″ is objectively true. “2+2=5″ is objectively false. in my above example, three judges who saw the fall would be “objectively” correct in saying that the performer fell. if the two who didn’t see the fall said that she didn’t fall, then their ranking would be “objectively” incorrect. If the two judges who saw her fall had been taught that “falling is the correct thing to do,” they would still be objectively scoring her when they gave the performer more points for falling. if they were taught incorrectly, then their scoring would be objectively incorrect. still, none of it is opinion.

    “the painting is pretty” is a subjective statement. It’s also an opinion. It is impossible for it to be objectively correct or incorrect.

    “everyone thinks the painting is pretty” is an objective statement. it is not an opinion. a survey could determine if the statement was true.

    I’ve heard people say “objective opinion,” but I always thought of it as incorrect english. They were using it to mean “unbiased,” but they were only trying to express the sort of “unbiased” that means “unemotional,” not the sort of “unbiased” that means “based on facts” and “not subject to interpretation.” Their meaning wasn’t the sort of “unbiased” that I would think of as meaning “objective.”

    I don’t understand how it can be considered correct english to use the words “objective” and “opinion” together in this way. Can anyone give me an explanation of how this can be correct?

    Reply from Paul: Brian, you had quite a bit to say on the subject!

    As far as objective opinion, I have no problem with it since you can have an opinion from an objective source and from an biased source. For instance, my mother might not be the most objective source when it comes to the quality of my blogs; however, you, as a casual reader, might be objective.

  2. Judy said

    My most hated phrases is “free gift”. I’ve often seen it included in oxymoron lists but it doesn’t truly belong there. Oxymorons are supposed to be contradictory words. ‘Free gift’ is a redundant phrase. Still, if it gets people to stop using it, I’d satisfied. But the main place I’ve seen it used is in advertising – makes me fume!

    Reply from Paul: Thanks, Judy. Free gift made it into the book. It’s a classic!

  3. Lauren said

    I googled these words, “definate possibility” because I had been reminiscing about a salesman that used to work for my husband at a carpet store. When a customer would want a certain type of carpet in a certain shade that was not in stock they would ask this salesman if he could order it for them. He, not wanting to lose the sale, would reply ” Hmm, that’s a definate possibility” while nodding his head in the affirmative. This salesman had known all along that he could not in fact order the particular color or style because in fact there was no such animal. I concluded this was his attempt to use a “positive” word to precede the uncertainty of the word possibility. In the sales world one must always present to the customer “certaint” phrases so that the customer will feel confident that the salesman 1. knows what the heck thier talking about and 2. they can provide precisely and exactly what the customer wants. (even though it does not exist!) I guess what I am saying is that we should all beware when hearing this particular oxymoron if coming from a salesperson, or anyone else for that matter. It is a deceitful statement meant to overshadow a lie! Needless to say this person was unable to keep his job. He proved to be dishonest to his employer also!

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