Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Absolutes: Some Very Unique Words

with 6 comments

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:

  • unique
  • perfect
  • entirely
  • fatal
  • infinite
  • finite
  • irrevocable

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.

However …

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.

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Written by Nathanael Green

August 11, 2009 at 7:22 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I disagree with the part about the word dead being an absolute. We all know there is such a thing as being mostly dead.

    Erica

    August 24, 2009 at 7:28 am

    • Erica,

      Sorry! I did forget to mention that there is one exception to the rule in this case. And that’s only if your name happens to be The Dread Pirate Roberts.

      Otherwise, being mostly dead is … inconceivable!

      Nathanael Green

      August 24, 2009 at 9:07 pm

  2. Thank heaven! It is so refreshing to read that someone actually cares about speaking English properly. I just about go crazy when people use ‘good’ to respond to “How are you?” And the other increasingly annoying habit is when people drop the ‘ly’ – “I answered the question accurate.” When in fact, it should be “accurately”….there are other, better examples that are alluding me right now but honestly, I am pro evolution, when it doesn’t butcher the existing structure of the English language. It already lacks the beautiful cadence and softness of the romantic languages. Please, let us at least allow it to keep its own proper character.

    RC

    October 22, 2013 at 9:40 am

    • I think you mean they’re eluding you.

      Johnny Relentless

      September 29, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    • And I believe they’re called Romance languages or Romanic languages. I’ve never heard them called romantic languages before.

      Johnny Relentless

      September 29, 2015 at 10:22 pm

  3. […] pet peeves. Many websites are devoted to correct usage and are often fun to read. You might look at Absolutes: Some Very Unique Words, Commonly Misused Words and Phrases, or 10 Words You’ve Probably Been Misusing. Or, if you really […]


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