Absolutes: Some Very Unique Words
Can something be more than perfect? A little bit perfect? Or, if something’s one of a kind, can it be more one of a kind?
If you’re taking these ideas literally, the answer is no. Perfect, by definition, means there’s nothing better to be had. It’s as good as it can possibly be.
Perfect is what’s known as an absolute. Perfect is perfect; it doesn’t come in degrees of perfectness.
But what gets tricky, is that in everyday speech, absolutes like perfect get modified all the time. So, you may ask, is it ok to say “more perfect?”
First, what’s an absolute?
Absolutes are words that have a very specific black-and-white meaning.
Think of it this way: when you describe something as disgusting, it can vary by degrees. That milk that’s beginning to turn sour is a little disgusting. The fish your colleague is reheating in the microwave is more disgusting. The dish of sour cream that rolled out of the grocery bag in your trunk last week is extremely disgusting.
But with absolutes, it either is or it isn’t. Think of it like the word dead. No one’s more dead, less dead or marginally dead. They’re dead, or they’re alive. Two choices. It’s the same with other absolutes, which include:
As another example, think about irrevocable. It means that something’s final, unable to be changed. So by definition, something can’t be just a little irrevocable, or more irrevocable, or it wouldn’t be irrevocable at all.
(Wow. I had a little semantic satiation incident with irrevocable.)
So what’s the issue?
The question arises when in popular speech, we say things like “He’s got a very unique personality.” Or “Each dessert is more perfect than the one before!”
The argument is that these words are absolutes, so you’re not making any sense by modifying them with very or with comparatives like more. Unique means one of a kind, without peer. So technically, nothing can be more unique or the most unique – it’s simply unique or it’s not.
Saying your dog’s habits are more unique than your cat’s is like saying great-aunt Margie is deader than great-uncle Horace.
So … can I say “more unique” or not?
Here’s my take on it. Don’t modify absolutes in academic or formal writing. It’ll help polish your writing and speech by showing you know the literal meanings of these words. No one can fault you for not modifying an absolute.
Plus, there are some easy workarounds. Just take a moment to think about what you really want to say. Instead of a vague “more unique,” choose a more specific word. Maybe it’s more peculiar. Or more awe-inspiring.
Even in everyday speech, I’d recommend avoiding saying that that movie was “soooo perfect!”
Why? Well, because words are only useful to us if we all agree on their meanings. And using words like perfect or unique – the two worst offenders – in this way waters down their meaning. The words don’t have the impact they should if we’re battering them with unnecessary modifiers.
While I recommend avoiding modifying absolutes, I must admit that this is a natural part of the evolution of language. If everyone does it often enough, the meanings of the words change or broaden to show how we use them. I am a fan of descriptive linguistics, after all.
The bottom line is just to be aware of absolutes, however you decide to use them, and know that especially in academic and formal writing, modifying them is generally frowned upon.