A pleasant little story about a confiscated knife in the Metropolitan Diary section of today’s NY Times includes the following line: “I put the knife in the envelope and gave it to her, thinking full well I’d never see it again.” My first reaction was that “thinking full well” was just plain wrong, probably the result of sloppy editing (first writing “knowing,” then changing the word without noticing that the phrase no longer worked). But googling finds a small corpus of “think full well” (“If you think full well that what you are doing is any different…”) and “thinking full well” (“I went home thinking full well that we had gotten there in time”), so it clearly is part of some people’s idiolects. Thus today’s Languagehat Poll: does this usage seem to you wrong, marginal, or perfectly good?
Addendum. According to a comment by Annie (of the very nice Catalogue Blog), this is a common Lallans usage in the West Coast of Scotland; “the nearest approximation I could give in standard English would be ‘I believe almost to the point of certainty.’ However, that would only be an approximation, just as ‘slimy, depressing, drizzly weather’ is an approximation for ‘driech.'” Thank goodness for dialects; they keep the language from settling into boring predictability.


  1. Wrong.

  2. Not obviously wrong to me – but definately in the odd category.

  3. Now that you mention it, I’ve never heard it before, but when I first read the quote I couldn’t see the problem at all.

  4. sounds fine to me. I bet I’ve used it in the last year, too.

  5. Henry IX says

    I don’t use it, but I know several people who do. It sounds a little old-fashioned to me, but then I probably have some old-fashioned idiosyncracies myself.

  6. It doesn’t strike me as wrong at all, but it does seem old-fashioned. I admit to being somewhat surprised that Henry IX agrees. : )

  7. Never heard it before… if I had been the editor, I would have changed it to “fully expecting.”

  8. Where does “know full well” come from, then? I use it all the time. I’ve never said “think full well”, though.

  9. “full well” goes back at least as far as Chaucer, and can be used with other verbs (“thou wert full well y-warned”). But damn, it sounds wrong to me with anything but “know”.
    I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
    The reason why I cannot tell;
    But this I know, and know full well,
    I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

  10. aldiboronti says

    Wrong! Or, at the very least, unidiomatic.

  11. John Kozak says

    Sounds OK to me (I’m English, and it may be more common over here).
    Presumably this is a fossil of the usage of “full” as a generic intensifier, e.g. Thomas Nashe “The plague full swift goes by”.

  12. Isn’t it a nice case of de-idiomatization, with ‘full well’ on its way back into active use?

  13. Works for me.

  14. I’ve heard it before, and it doesn’t bother me when I hear it, but I never say it myself.

  15. It didn’t leap out at me when I read it first, but of course thinking about it it doesn’t make sense: ‘full well’ means ‘fully’ or ‘thoroughly’, and it’s hard to see exactly how you apply that to thinking. As the expression only exists in ‘know full well’, the meaning they’re giving it in ‘think full well’ arises by reanalysis of the idiom to give a different meaning (as opposed to reusing the original ‘full well’). But what? Something like ‘with great confidence’ sort of works for both verbs.

  16. Sounds fine to me. I didn’t think anything of it at all until reading to the bit where you said it sounded wrong to you — but even then, thinking over it, it still didn’t sound remotely wrong.
    “thinking full well”, I think, means that you thought you knew full well, but in retrospect, you didn’t. At least, that’s how I read the sentence you quoted. The author thought they knew full well that they’d never see the knife again, but they turned out to be wrong about that.
    ***checking diary section***
    And behold, the rest of the story bears out my initial interpretation.

  17. Wrong!

  18. My brain accepted it without complaint (with the meaning Erika describes), but then, when you went on to voice your doubts about it, I re-read it a couple of times and suddenly I realised that “know full well” was more usual, and then it popped into “wrongness” for me.

  19. Although at first reading it sounded odd, I think it’s an interesting and creative reconfiguration.

  20. Never heard it, and probably would have deleted “full well” had I been editing the passage (assuming the writer was mixed up about the idiom, or that readers would think so). But, as a casual reader, it didn’t jump out as glaringly wrong, and in fact, seemed to work, meaning: I thought I knew full well (but as you’ll see, I didn’t).

  21. OK, but seriously archaic, ergo self-conscious.

  22. I am truly surprised at how many people accept this; it’s clearly on the rise (not archaic or old-fashioned, as some of you seem to think — entangledbank is right about its being a reanalysis of “know full well”). This is why it’s so good having this blog: I ask a question and overnight learn an interesting fact about language change that would have taken all sorts of laborious research in the old days.
    Special kudos to stephen for quoting one of my favorite quatrains (which probably did more than anything else to cement the traditional idiom in my young brain).

  23. Agreed with Stephen. For me (UK, 48) “knowing full well” is pretty standard idiom for “knowing on the basis of long and cynical experience”. “Thinking full well” makes no sense to me, not even as an archaicism.

  24. If it’s good enough for the margrave, it’s good enough for me:

    Then spake the margrave Gere: / “That lady will I tell
    How that of royal Etzel / she may think full well.
    In fear are subject to him / brave warriors many a one:
    Well may he recompense her / for wrong that e’er to her was done.”

  25. bill reith says

    It seems right, and emphatic.

  26. It would seem wrong, perhaps, to those who have fully suscribed to the standardization of English, as it’s been effected by English teachers, grammarians, and those in the mass media.
    I believe I’ve heard it. Yes, it sounds incorrect from a Standard American English point of view, but it seems “natural” to me. I happen to have grown up in west central Illinois.

  27. speedwell says

    Mishmosh. Sounds illiterate to me.

  28. New to me, but fine. There’s some pretty nonstandard usages I hear around me every day. Sometime soon I’ll get around to writing them down.

  29. “How that of royal Etzel / she may think full well”
    Now this is a genuine archaism in a correct sense: “think well of” with the adverb augmented by the archaic “full”. But definitely not what the diarist had in mind.
    The interpretation “thinking I knew full well” does make sense, in hindsight, and if that’s what they meant then it’s a kind of portmanteau.

  30. Des, I find it hard to accept George Henry Needler as a purveyor of actual English when he turns out lines like:
    “Me may’st thou gladly welcome / with messengers high meed.”
    I strongly suspect him of throwing together any combination of words that will allow him to get on to the next stanza with minimal effort. Nice find, though!

  31. I strongly suspect him of throwing together any combination of words that will allow him to get on to the next stanza with minimal effort.
    There’s another way? Mr Milton will be terribly upset…

  32. It seems odd and sloppy to me, and I would edit it out. It isn’t intrinsically bad, though, and if there were a memorable precedent it would be fine.
    It reminds me of “any more” used in positive sentences: “Any more, you can find gourmet foods in almost every grocery”.

  33. Logophile says

    Anyone who claims that “full” can’t be used as an adverb to modify “well” should be given a full forty lashes because they should know full well that it can be used to mean “extremely” or as an intensifier.
    On the other hand, to “think well” means something quite different from what the author intended here: “thinking very well that I’d never see it again” simply makes no sense. “Full” simply seems to intensify the error. I’d have no problem with “convinced full well that I’d never see it again.”
    All that said, I must admit that I did immediately understand what was meant and probably would never have detected any problem with it had you not pointed it out. I believe the problem arises not so much from “full well” per se but from how its presence distracts us from the less-than-standard use of “thinking” here.

  34. Michael Farris says

    I pretty much agree with Erika on initial reaction and interpretation.
    I don’t _think_ I would use it, but you never know. I recently heard myself using ‘anymore’ in the positive sense, a structure I thought wasn’t part of my active repertoire.

  35. Sounds iffy. “Completely probable” is another phrase which doesn’t quite make sense to me when examined closely.

  36. ‘Think full well’ sounds wrong to me. I wouldn’t use it.

  37. It seems like a self-conscious archaism to me – I don’t think it sounds right as modern idiomatic English. But then “know full well” is pretty self-conscious anyway, surely. Nine times out of ten you probably wouldn’t say it, even if you wanted to emphasise how much you ‘know by experience’ that something will or won’t happen…

  38. It’s not an archaism. If it were an archaism, 1) it would make sense, and 2) you’d get a lot more Google hits. It’s a new form based on a misunderstood (or, to be strictly descriptivist, reanalyzed) “know full well” — which I do indeed say, when I’m in the mood to sound a little pompous.

  39. Janes_Kid says

    I read “thinking full well” and then read “knowing full well” and thought “what’s the difference?” It seems to me that most people on the street use “think” and “know” without thinking or knowing. On the street both words mean the speaker has this notion they want to blurt out.

  40. Is it to do with the tentative nature of “thinking” something as opposed to “knowing” it? If I know something, I know. If I think it, there’s room for doubt. You can know something with certainty, but I reckon you can’t think it with certainty.
    If you use “full well” with “know” that’s ok, if a little high-flown. If you use it with most other verbs, it’s an archaism. “think full well” is an oxymoronic archaism, which causes more discomfort.

  41. We “think full well” a lot in the West Coast of Scotland. I wouldn’t write it, though – only say it aloud. If I had to convey what I meant when I said “I think full well” the nearest approximation I could give in standard English would be “I believe almost to the point of certainty.” However, that would only be an approximation, just as “slimy, depressing, drizzly weather” is an approximation for “driech.” I am from the generation that was brought up to speak the Lallans but write standard English, and a part of me admires people who can use idiomatic or non-standard phrases without self-consciousness or self-reproach.

  42. Michael Farris says

    Can anyone here say “I thought full well that X” in a context where they were right?
    I don’t think I can, it seems to pretty strongly carry the information “but, as you’ll see, I was wrong”
    “I knew full well that X” doesn’t have that same meaning for me (it can, but it’s not obligatory).

  43. We “think full well” a lot in the West Coast of Scotland
    Aha, so it’s a dialect usage! Thanks, that was a very informative comment, and I totally agree with you about “people who can use idiomatic or non-standard phrases without self-consciousness or self-reproach.”
    I hope you don’t mind if I consult you about any Lallans questions that may pop into my head. (Do you have any opinion on the Scots poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid?)

  44. languagehat: I find it hard to accept George Henry Needler as a purveyor of actual English
    Aargh, yes. I never trust 19th century poetry as a source of genuine archaic usage. As you said, it’s often full of crappy inversions and other devices to achieve metre and scansion at the expense of sense, as well as other linguistc barbarities. Would you trust anyone who managed to convert “sluagh-gharim” (i.e. war-cry) into the entirely non-existent “slughorn”? (“And yet Dauntless the slughorn to my lips I set,
    And blew: Childe Roland to the dark tower came”).

  45. A lot of Scots is much closer that English to the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman roots of both languages. (Unsurprisingly as a native of Ayrshire and having lived in Dumfriesshire I subscribe to the parallel language theory of the development of English and Scots)!
    In any case, feel free to ask – I’ll do my best, but I am only a native speaker, not an academic, having studied English Language and Literature only to Masters level.
    I love MacDiarmid and met him once, when I was far, far too young to appreciate it. (I was only six when he died). He stretched Scots to its very limits (and sometimes beyond), which makes him fun to read. Have you read the Makar Edwin Morgan? He’s on the front page of the Scottish Poetry Library web-site this month. Morgan is my favourite living male poet. Does it sound odd to use ‘male’ as a descriptor? I do so only because my favourite living poets, as I have said elsewhere, are Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead.

  46. It seems to be a combination of two set phrases:
    “knowing full well”
    “fully expecting”

  47. Annie: You met MacDiarmid? I’m deeply jealous, no matter how young you were. And I love Lochhead; do you know “My Mother’s Suitors”?
    They have come to call & we’ll all
    go walking under the black sky’s
    droning big bombers
    among the ratatat of ack-ack…

    I’ll have to investigate Carol Ann Duffy.
    Jonathan: Sounds about right.

  48. Same reaction as Erika – sounded perfectly normal, not aware of ever using it before, but it telegraphed an impending “but then it turned out…” I could also (now) imagine saying “I thought full well that I’d never see it again, and so far I have been right.” (data: 37, female, not a linguist, NYC upbringing, Boston area adulthood, married to gent from Yorkshire/Cheshire.)
    So is it an age thing? If you grew up hearing old rural or provincials use it, then it sounds forced now (perhaps charmingly so, perhaps annoying), and if it seems unfamiliar, some like that experience, some don’t?

  49. scarabaeus stercus says

    “…it seems to pretty strongly carry the information …” wot a nice turn of a phrase,
    ‘PRETTY’ a word used without thought. I, not being of the literate, brain washed and begowned, doth find that “Think full well” has a deeper meaning in my ignoramus mind. It is THINK.[activate grey matter}… full [deeply, all cells functioning ] well [completely,churned and disected before returning with activating the sound box]. The saxons do like to keep it simple[Kiss].

  50. I’m overdue to do a blog post on Carol Ann Duffy – maybe next week when I am not at work. Her best-known poem is Prayer, which you can see on the web in many places, including her publisher’s website, Many people thought she would be Poet Laureatte, but they appointed Andrew Motion instead. She would have been the first female (British) Laureatte if she had been appointed.
    I have been very lucky in my youth – I won several poetry (writing) competitions and so met lots of British, particularly Scottish, poets. MacDiarmid presented the prizes at my first ever Ayrshire Festival (the biggest annual Burns festival in Scotland at the time – I assume it’s still running and has not been subsumed by the Gaelic Mod in Glasgow). He was grumpy, but impressive.

  51. “Grumpy, but impressive” — that’s just the way I imagined him! I look forward to your Duffy post.

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