Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"Very unique" -- please kill me now

The Rule: Choose words that are exact, idiomatic and fresh. (Harbrace 20, Exactness)

When we write and speak, we must be aware of what words mean. The word "unique" comes from the Latin word "unus," meaning one. E pluribus unum means "out of many, one."

Unique means "being the only one, being without like or equal." A person or thing is either unique or not. You can't be "very unique." You hear it all the time, but this expression doesn't reflect the uniqueness of the word unique.

Another commonly cited word like this is "pregnant." A woman is either pregnant or she is not. She can't be "very pregnant." She can certainly be very far along in her pregnancy, but not "very pregnant."

3 comments:

Editor said...

The error is the belief that "unique" is absolute. That is not logical. Something is only unique by comparison -therefore it is relative.
The example of the only son being the man's unique son: Consider that is only one comparison by which the person is unique, what if he also had green skin and could fly -that would make him unique by more standards of comparison -therefore very unique.

Abhishek Mukherjee said...

Two more examples:
1. Free gift
2. Self-cannibalism

Bill Davis said...

How sad if you are willing to give up your life to avoid hearing a phrase such as "very unique." :)

Let's have a little fun. Since we have the expression "one-of-a-kind" in English,, then the word "unique" is... well, it's not unique.

Secondly "we must know what words mean" isn't bad advice, but citing Latin roots has little relevance to what the English word "means" NOW. We could take the other word in "very unique" (very) and show, that it comes from the Latin verax " truthful." So since "truly unique" would be acceptable to even the most hardened prescriptivists among us, then they should also be happy with "very unique." Because Latin, as we might hear today.

The phrase "means" what speakers use it to mean, and what they understand it to mean. Some dictionaries already reflect that "very unique" simply means "truly unique." Ah, perhaps Latin helped us a. It. "Very" has more senses than the one scalar adverb.

And many non scalar adjectives can be spoken of as scalar, anyway. The glass is either full or it is not... but it may be very full, or we ask "How full is it?"