September 24, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: unique or not

Posted in unique at 6:01 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I wanted to write you about an issue that I think I’ve been noticing a lot lately. My favorite English teacher taught me this, but usually I forget about it too quickly to write about it. This time, I’m at my computer reading an interviewer’s notes on a college applicant, which say:

“His interest in [redacted, hobby] was a particularly unique and fun story to hear.”

The thing is, unique is not an adjective with degrees–something cannot be “very” unique, or “particularly” unique. Unique means that something is literally one-of-a-kind. It is either the only thing of its kind in existence or it’s not (there’s at least one other). Something can be very unusual or particularly uncommon, but it’s either unique or it’s not.

Am I crazy for letting this bother me enough to take the time to write you about it?

I sympathize because this particular expression makes me me a little bit crazy, too.

I watched a somewhat unique television show last night.

What?  What the heck does that mean? I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Something is either unique or it’s not. Nothing can be sort of unique or very unique or not too unique or any shade of unique. It’s absolute. It’s one or the other: unique or not unique.

Now to be fair, some dictionaries provide usage notes that indicate that unique is often used as a less than absolute term and can legitimately be used with comparative and other adjectives, such as ‘very’ or ‘more’ or ‘less’ or ‘somewhat.’ Now, I realize that this happens all the time.

I am going to argue against this usage for a few reasons. For example, despite including this usage note, most dictionaries still define unique as one of a kind or without equal. The truth is that many dispute the veracity or, to me, more importantly, many dispute the utility of the usage described in the usage note. If we accept very unique as a legitimate usage, then, we are saying that very unique means nothing more than very unusual. My feeling is that there are plenty of other words for very unusual (e.g., very uncommon, very rare, very abnormal—there are plenty more, but you get the point). Unique means one particular thing, and there is nothing like it—it is unique.

And really, unique has a certain kind of panache. Do we really want UNIQUE to mean the same as the drab very unusual? Let’s let unique keep its unique meaning—it’s such a good word.

Let unique mean unique, and let unique stay unique.

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