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Exactly Wrong

In contemporary American English the phrase exactly right has acquired near-universal currency as the emphatic equivalent of the simple adjective right. What underlies the spread of this phrase has nothing to do with emphasis, however, but with the loosening of the semantic boundaries that define the adjective in its moral dimension, whether it pertains to straightforward accuracy/correctness or to ethics sensu stricto.

The adjective right and its antonym wrong are ABSOLUTE ADJECTIVES, by which is meant a grammatical category that does not admit of scalar values. Relativization, as implied by the use of the phrase exactly right, is thus in a fundamental sense a FAILURE OF THOUGHT, comparable to graded uses of the adjective unique (< Latin unicum ‘one of a kind’). The kind of moral relativism that licenses exactly right in both its emphatic and non-emphatic senses can thus be identified as evidence for––and of a piece with––the powerful cultural trend in present-day American discourse that scants ethical absolutes while privileging (the quicksands of) a value-free outlook in the name of “freedom of choice.” Alas, the integrity of both language and morals is degraded as a result.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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