5

I came across this passage in a magazine:

¿En qué acabó el error de Margaret, mencionado al principio? ¿Arruinó la ocasión? En absoluto. Todos se lo tomaron con sentido del humor, especialmente ella, ...

It seems to me that it is saying, "How did the mistake that Margaret made, mentioned at the outset, turn out? Did it ruin the occasion? Absolutely."

But the English version reads:

Did Margaret’s mistake, mentioned earlier, spoil the family occasion? Not at all. Everyone saw the funny side of it, especially Margaret, ...

So, instead of "en absoluto" meaning "absolutely" (which, I agree, makes no sense in the context), it apparently means "Not at all."

I would expect "Not at all" to be something more like, "No en todo."

Why does what looks like "absolutely" actually mean the opposite? Has anybody (besides me) ever been tripped up by this?

4

Yes, it's rather funny.

"En absoluto" usually carries a negative meaning, as if we had said "absolutely not".

However, it can also be used in affirmative sense - and even in a different sense... Maria Moliner enumerates these three meanings:

  1. De manera absoluta, sin relación con otra cosa (en sí mismo, por sí mismo, de por sí, de sí, de suyo).

  2. En frases firmativas, significa también “completamente, del todo, sin reservas o restricciones“ (Estoy decidido en absoluto)

  3. Más frecuentemente tiene sentido negativo, equivalente a “de ninguna manera“:" (¿No te arrepentirás? - En absoluto) (No estoy dispuesto a consentirlo en absoluto)

The second meaning would correspond to the English usage. In my experience, the third meaning is the most common one, by far.

I doubt that we can answer why.

By the way: we also have "absolutamente", which seems a more literal translation, and it's also slightly ambiguous, but leads more towards the affirmative meaning. However, it's not very used as a replacement of "en absoluto", but mostly as an adverb ("Esa noticia es absolutamente falsa").

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1

Not at all = No, en absoluto

But, as it happens with negative expressions, the "No" is omitted when the expression is alone or placed before the verb:

¿Tienes dudas? Ninguna. / No, ninguna. / No tengo ninguna duda.

¿Tienes dudas? En absoluto. / No, en absoluto. / No tengo dudas en absoluto.

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