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I was reading a letter from Warren Weaver to Norbert Wiener (1949), and this sentence drew my attention:

One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could conceivably be treated as a problem in cryptography.

What's the point of adding conceivably? E.g. couldn't we simply say:

One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could be treated as a problem in cryptography.

Definition of conceivably:

Use the adverb conceivably when you're talking about something that is believable or possible. You could say, for example, that you'll conceivably still be on time to work after oversleeping, especially if you skip breakfast.

Doesn't "could" already convey this meaning of possibility, making the expression "X could conceivably ..." redundant? Or is it a valid way to emphasize on the possibility aspect of the claim?

  • 1
    When you add a lexical or grammatical modal (that is, a modal adverb or auxiliary) without a significant change in meaning, it's called modal harmony (a term first used in Lyons' 1977 Semantics). This is actually quite normal and occurs in various languages, not just English. The topic is covered in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language as well (see the index for a list of pages). However, in this case I suppose there might be a change in meaning―see the answers below. – snailcar Nov 29 '14 at 7:25
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It does not seem either redundant or merely emphatic. "Conceivably" contrasts with other possible modifiers. For instance, the problem could conceivably be treated in that manner even if it could not effectively be treated as such -- a contrast between theory and practice.

  • The problem could be treated this way -- the treatment is possible
  • The problem could conceivably be treated this way -- the possible treatment can be imagined.
  • The problem could effectively be treated this way -- the possible treatment can be used.
  • Thanks! Does "The problem could be treated this way" implies that the treatment is possible? E.g. when we say "X could be right", it doesn't imply that X is right. – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 29 '14 at 0:57
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    I was trying to not slip down the rabbit hole further than we needed to. The auxiliary "can" can denote possibility at some times, capacity at others. The subjunctive mode can also denote possibility at some times, conditionality at others, and counter-factuality at still others. "Could" is the subjunctive form of "can". I only wanted to show that the adverb "conceivably" adds information that the "could" doesn't necessarily provide. Listing all the possible interpretations for "could" seems beyond the scope of the original question. – Gary Botnovcan Nov 29 '14 at 1:50
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In my mind, "could conceivably" implies that there's substantial doubt whether this could actually be done. "could" by itself simply implies curiosity about the feasibility without any preconceived notion of whether it might be difficult or not.

4

I'd put it down the the 'great academic apology' [term I just coined]

Adding redundancy, tautology & apology - methods used to avoid getting straight to the point, rather discussing the weather first.

"I'm sorry that I couldn't make it to your party" == "I really couldn't be bothered / didn't want to / had toenails that urgently needed clipping"

"I know it's an imposition, but could you possibly see your way clear to… lending me a fiver / copying that document / marrying my sister…"

"Could this problem conceivably be treated as…" == "Really... can't you just see that this is absolutely the only method to employ?!?!"

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Seems like a valid way to emphasize it. I think that:

One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could possibly be treated as a problem in cryptography.

sounds more natural, though.

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Conceivably is used in two similar situations:

One uses it when it is technically possible to do something, but the author isn't convinced the effort of doing so is worth the trouble. Here the idea would be to dissuade the reader from believing the author recommends taking the approach.

This case looks to be slightly different. In this case, it looks like the author expects the reader to consider the process to be very hard and not worth the trouble. In this case, the author is saying, "you probably think this is an absurd idea, but please let me develop it a bit. You'll see that it's worth your time to go down this line of reasoning." It is one example of a very common pattern in English communication, where you assume the tone and language of a hostile reader in order to molify them long enough to get your idea across. Otherwise they might just stop reading when they decide you're too crazy.

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