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He must have probably been an excellent student

It's stated on some learning website that it means

Perhaps, he was not the most excellent student.

Is it right? It seems strange for me. There is not any negation in the sentence. I'd agree on that if the "probably" was substituted by "never", for instance.

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    It doesn't mean that, at all, but it permits that state of affairs to have been the case. The word probably excludes certainty, it allows for doubt. In this case, the doubt it allows for is that he might not have been an excellent student. Though he probably was. – Dan Bron Jun 14 '16 at 22:04
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First of all, it sounds strange. I don't think that the word probably fits in the sentence since must have implies that it was the case that he was an excellent student. Probably implies that it was likely the case. It didn't have to be. So, one should not use probably and must have in the same sentence. It should be either

  1. He must have been an excellent student.
    Meaning that it is the case that was he was an excellent student. Or,
  2. He was probably an excellent student.
    Meaning that it is likely the case that he was an excellent student.

If however, this is an example of what someone (like a native speaker) might say, then I accept this. I can imagine someone saying this. The reason I can imagine this is because it sounds like hedging. Meaning that as the speaker utters He must have, something changes his mind, and realizes that maybe must have is too strong, and softens his statement by following up with probably.


In one sense,

He must have probably been an excellent student

means that it was (or likely was) the case that the student was excellent. For example, suppose you meet this person, and he seems sharp. You didn't know him in college, but you imagine that he was an excellent student. So you might remark to someone else that

He was sharp. He must have probably been an excellent student.

In another sense, if you claim that the site states

Perhaps, he was not the most excellent student.

Then this sounds like an example of sarcasm. Like maybe two teacher friends are talking about a third teacher who is irresponsible and is a terrible teacher. They speculate about his student days and say

He must have probably been an excellent student.

They imply that he was likely a terrible student too.

  • So it is definitely not a straight clear language if I understood you right. I mean, it's not supposed to be in textbooks, right? – tsul Jun 14 '16 at 22:34
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    Yes, "He must have probably been an excellent student" is not clear. – Em. Jun 14 '16 at 22:35
  • But if the word "probably" be substituded by the word "never", would it make sense? So we've got a negation of the affirmative sentence, if it is. – tsul Jun 14 '16 at 22:38
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    Yes, it means (to me) that he was never an excellent student, or that there was never a possibility that he was an excellent student. It makes more sense with the word never. – Em. Jun 14 '16 at 22:41
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Hmm, the sentence seems self-contradictory to me. If he "must have been" then there's no "probably", and vice versa. You could say, "He must have been an excellent student" or "He probably was an excellent student".

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    I think I remember seeing this construct from time-to-time (or something like it), where it's deliberately contradictory for humorous effect. I don't know if that's what's going on in this case, however. – J.R. Jun 14 '16 at 22:11
  • That's what I thought too, exactly. – tsul Jun 14 '16 at 22:27
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    @J.R. Yes, humorous effect, or I guess when a person is groping for how to express an intermediate level of certainty. For example, I've often heard people say, "That's a definite maybe". – Jay Jun 15 '16 at 1:28

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