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Which option fits best in the following question?

The movement's ideas are not merely absurd; they are __________ dangerous.

a. formally
b. perfectly
c. absolutely
d. positively

Some of the options can have more than one meaning, so I list the most possible meanings below:

formally: Officially (= in an official way)
perfectly: In a manner or way that could not be better (also: used for emphasis, especially in order to assert something that has been challenged or doubted)
absolutely: totally (also: used to emphasize a strong or exaggerated statement)
positively: with certainty (also: used to emphasize that something is the case, even though it may seem surprising)

The first option, formally, is out of picture because the official opinion doesn't necessarily have any relevance to the nature of the movement's ideas. We have to decide between the remaining three options.

There are two sentences:

1 The movement's ideas are not merely absurd;
2 they are __________ dangerous.

In the speaker's mind it's not enough to say that the movements ideas are merely absurd. Something stronger is needed. So they continue: they are dangerous, and for emphasis, they add an emphasizing adverb too: they are .... dangerous. You can see from the Oxford Dictionary definitions that all the options b, c, and d can be used for emphasis.

My question is: which emphasis fits the context of this question the best?

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4  
This is the catch. The word positively here means not "in a positive way" but rather "really". These ideas are really dangerous. – CowperKettle Oct 19 '15 at 12:19
2  
To my taste, the word no. 4 not only fits the sentence, it is positively the best you can choose from the options on offer. – CowperKettle Oct 19 '15 at 12:21
5  
@CopperKettle Native speaker here - I agree with you, "positively" fits the best out of these. – Jez W Oct 19 '15 at 12:28
1  
absolutely, positively... – user3169 Mar 22 at 19:35
3  
As a native AmE speaker I pick "outright", which isn't an option but it is the idiomatic standard word for this phrase. – Catija Mar 23 at 2:20
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The distinctions in this question are subtle:

"Formally", as you say, does not fit and is out of the picture.

"Perfectly" is an intensifier that compares to potential; if something is "perfectly dangerous", it cannot be any more dangerous than it currently is.

"Absolutely" is an intensifier that emphasizes lack of uncertainty; if something is "absolutely dangerous", there is no doubt about its danger.

"Positively" is an intensifier that can compare to an earlier qualification; if something is "positively dangerous", then in being dangerous it goes beyond what was said about it before. Or, as another example, in the exchange

Q: Are you hungry?
A: I'm positively famished.

the response means the same as "I'm famished", but emphasizes that "famished" is more than just "hungry".

You write

In the speaker's mind it's not enough to say that the movement's ideas are merely absurd.

This is the key insight; the speaker is not emphasizing that the danger is maximal, nor that the danger is certain, but that the danger puts the ideas past mere absurdity. Thus, the correct answer is "positively".

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I suspect this is a case where the common English usage seems very odd to a non-native speaker, and I'm afraid I can't offer a good explanation as to WHY it works the way it does, but:

the only form of the above I would expect to hear is 4,

The movement's ideas are not merely absurd; they are positively dangerous

In this case, positively doesn't mean good as it usually does, instead it means something more like Actively. 1, 2 or 3 would sound odd to me as a native speaker.

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+1 for "the only form of the above...." Positively means certainly - as in "I am positive that your dog is the one who bit me yesterday." – Adam Mar 22 at 20:49

Taking by basis the word in the first sentence, absurd, I would say that the author of the sentence wanted to emphasize the insanity of the ideas. Positively gives us the sense of certainty, but absolutely gives us the exaggerated meaning, which is fit for this case.

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