The list of things I believe,though I have no evidence for the truth of them, is, if not infinite, virtually endless.

I found two main relevant senses:


1 : almost entirely : NEARLY

2 : for all practical purposes

Which one is the meaning in the above sentence? Generally, how to find out which of these meaning is the case, as the context does not always help?

  • 2
    For your sentence, the two meanings are virtually the same. Why does it make any difference? (Except if you're translating the sentence, in which case you can make an arbitrary choice.) Jan 13, 2019 at 13:27
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    Jooya, @Peter's comment demonstrated that the two meanings are almost, nearly, or for all practical purposes, the same. You could substitute either for his virtually with no change in meaning. It's the same in your example sentence. Jan 13, 2019 at 13:34
  • @AndrewLeach How can you say that? One means "almost endless", other "in effect endless". I don't think these two means the same. Otherwise, they should not be separated in Webster in the first place.
    – Sasan
    Jan 13, 2019 at 13:37
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    @Jooya: Sometimes they don't mean the same thing in English. And you probably think they never mean the same thing because they're different words in your language. But for this particular sentence (and many English sentences containing the word virtually), for all practical purposes, they do. Jan 13, 2019 at 13:39
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    They sometimes don't mean the same thing. For example, "virtually in Washington D.C." could mean that we're in a city adjacent to Washington which is served by the Metro, where the buildings are in the same style, and so on (meaning 2), or it could mean that we're in a car and will be in Washington D.C. shortly, even though we're still driving through rural countryside (meaning 1). Jan 26, 2019 at 14:54

1 Answer 1


The OED combines these two definitions:

1b. In effect, although not according to strict definition; to all intents and purposes; as good as; practically. Later frequently in weakened use: nearly, almost.

Personally, I think that is a better way to understand the term, and how it is regarded in English. These are not two separate meanings with separate etymologies, but the "almost entirely" meaning is simply a weakening of the "for all practical purposes" meaning. It's not hard to see that often when A is "effectively" or "for all practical purposes" B, it is so because A is "nearly" B in some sense. There will be some exceptions (and this is arguably one of them, see below) but there is a lot of overlap between the two meanings.*

This leaves open the question of which is being used in your example, although it illustrates why the difference between the two meanings is regarded as being razor-thin.

With that in mind, three answers:

1) This seems like a classic case of a distinction without a difference. Given that the statement is almost certainly not meant to be taken in a completely literal manner, nailing down which shade of the definition was in the speaker's mind doesn't seem to add much to the understanding of the meaning.

2) The "for all practical purposes" seems like the definition that would be slightly more useful in making the speaker's point. Something could be infinite "for all practical purposes" or "as good as" infinite, without being demonstrated to be literally infinite. It is possible that the context might indicate that the speaker was actually making a claim about the literal numerical vastness of the unsupported things he or she believes, but that seems to be less important than a more general point about his or her credulity/open-mindedness.

3) Strictly speaking, it's impossible for something to be "nearly infinite" in a literal sense; it either is or isn't. Logically, the speaker must mean "infinite for all intents and purposes".

(I realize I've elided infinite and endless through this answer, even though the quote technically modifies endless with virtually, but I don't think it changes any of the points.)

*I would argue, based entirely off of my own intuition, and I have no references to back it up, that the two meanings are even closer than this implies: that even when we use virtually to simply mean nearly or almost that we only use it when the difference doesn't much matter or when we are minimizing the difference. If someone collapses short of the finish line, we could say that he nearly finished the race, but not that he virtually finished, because the whole point of a race is to cross the finish line, unless we were intentionally trying to minimize the fact that he didn't finish.

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