Can "certain" be used as a synonym of "definite" in front of "answer"?

When I hear "a certain answer", I think about "a specific answer" not a "definite" nor "ultimate" answer.

Can a "certain answer" mean a "definite answer"?


"Certain" does have two different albeit related meanings.

  1. It can mean a specific something, for example:

Last week I met a certain Mr Jones.

This means that you mean a specific person.

  1. It can also mean that you are sure of something, for example:

I am certain that his name was Jones.

This means that you have good reason to believe you are correct.

In your example, it could mean either!

A certain answer.

It could refer to a specific answer, or that someone is sure of the answer they gave.

As always context is required to determine which it is.

If it were:

I am looking for a certain answer.

This sounds to me like someone is looking for a specific answer. Interestingly you may also hear someone refer to "a certain question", which can only carry this meaning that it is a specific question. Normally when the word is used this way it carries the meaning of something unspoken or unmentionable that everybody involved ought to know.

Can you give me a certain answer?

This sounds like someone is asking for a definite answer; that is an answer they are sure of.

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  • I feel like “certain” when used this way almost always means “specific”. A person can be certain that an answer is correct, and an answer can be stated with certainty (in which case it is an unequivocal answer) but I can’t think of a context where I would prefer to interpret “certain answer” as “unequivocal answer” instead of “specific answer”. What’s strange is that I don’t think the same thing about “uncertain answer”, probably because it doesn’t have a second meaning that could fit. English is hard. – ColleenV Sep 6 '18 at 14:00
  • @ColleenV Well, which way are you referring to? I feel that without context, there is no "way". I've just added some further examples to my answer to try and help with the context, but this isn't an easy one! – Astralbee Sep 6 '18 at 14:02
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    I mean used as an adjective. Even in your final example, I would interpret that as “specific”. If I wanted an answer that was certain, I would ask for a “definite” answer. I don’t mean to imply that I think you’re wrong btw. This why I like ELL; it makes me think about how I use certain words. – ColleenV Sep 6 '18 at 14:07
  • Haha at least I know I should be careful using the word "certain" now. – MAT Sep 7 '18 at 2:29

The term "a Certain answer" is normally associated with a specific answer. I don't believe that there is a context in which "certain" could be synonymous with "definite" or "ultimate".

In this case, "a certain answer" carries the meaning that the speaker has in mind, and is waiting to hear, a very specific answer. So when they say "when I hear a certain answer", it is as if they are saying "when I they hear the answer that I have in mind".

"Definite" implies precision or a lack of uncertainty; "ultimate" implies a state of being ideal or excellence. However, in both cases, these refer to the general nature of an answer. They don't convey any context regarding the particular answer that the speaker has in mind.

One might expect that "a certain answer" implies that the speaker has in mind the "correct" answer, though that need not be the case.

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Certainly! (pun intended)

Admittedly, it is off-putting, since you don't expect that meaning. When you see this type of thing, it usually results in problems of communication since the intended meaning is easily lost, however it can also be done on purpose to be witty.

A few examples that come to mind include:

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