2-68. A Very Unique Virus

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Language is a virus, from outer space. ~ William S. Burroughs.

I had a friendly argument with a friend today about the term “most unique.” Since the word “unique” means “the only one of its kind,” the term “most unique” doesn’t make sense. There can be no degrees of uniqueness since that state of being unique means it’s the only one.

My argument was that there are varying degrees of uniqueness. While a duck with a purple feather is unique, a purple duck is more unique.

Which one of us is right? I’m going to guess you have a strong opinion on that.

Most if not all style guides will frown on any modification of “unique.” If something is “most unique,” it’s far better to describe it as “interesting” or “highly unusual.” And since style guides are what journalists use, we should bend to their pronouncements.

Except that journalists are using modifiers for “unique” all the time. You can find examples in nearly every newspaper.

So, let’s go to the dictionary! Sure enough, the dictionary says:

unique. Adjective. existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics.

There, problem solved. I’m wrong. Except… there are MORE definitions listed below, and one of those states:

unique. Adjective. not typical; unusual.

And the example sentence given is:

She has a very unique smile.

I can hear some of you cringing from here, and remember, I’m in the past. That’s some powerful cringing you’ve got.

Like the double-space after a period argument, there are those who hold on to tradition as the “correct” way of doing things. There are strong reasons for switching to one space after a period—this wasn’t a case of something arbitrary. Programming languages and typography don’t work as well with two spaces.

But for words like “unique,” the change in meaning isn’t intentional. Over time, people who don’t understand the rules of grammar use words improperly, and that usage spreads such that it becomes common.

So what are we to do with phrases like “very unique’? If you’re writing professionally and you’re following a style guide, someone has made the decision for you. But if you’re a casual writer, you have to make a choice about your art: what message do you want to convey?

And it is art. I may say “very unique” instead of “very unusual” for reasons of tone or temperament. And if I do so, I’ll know that “very unique” is frowned upon by well-educated people. But I also know that saying “very unique” conjures up a different image than “very unusual” or “very strange” or even “unique.” And as such, I’ll choose the words that most closely match the meaning I’m trying to convey.

Of course, this requires a knowledge of the rules to begin with, and a strong argument can be made that most people using the phrase “very unique” simply don’t know the intricacies of the definition. This is a fair argument, but railing against ignorance is going to do little good. The way a word is used will always assign its meaning no matter what a dictionary or style guide says.

So, if I want to make Christian cringe, I’ll say “very unique.” If I want to appear more acceptable the the literati, I’ll avoid the word altogether. One thing I won’t do is demand that language fit some set of rules. Clarity is all that matters, and rules should be applied only if they aid that end.

How unique is this feather? (Original photo by Gabriel VanHelsing)

How unique is this feather? (Original photo by Gabriel VanHelsing)

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