A Totally Unique Word

Sexagenarians across Britain are foaming at the mouth right now, preparing long and short explosions about that title. (Alright, most of them don’t read this blog, but you take my point.)  So to save you from their wrath, let’s just get one thing straight:

Unique is an absolute word. It cannot be qualified. Something is either unique or it’s not. It can’t be “a bit unique” or “totally unique” or “somewhat unique”.

Purists would prefer you not to use any adjectives with unique at all, but personally I think that’s a bit extreme. Something can clearly be “Wonderfully unique” as well as “uniquely wonderful”, and I would even be inclined to forgive “almost unique” at a push.

But “totally unique” and “pretty unique”? No. Steer clear and the baby boomers will sleep easy tonight.


Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

7 responses to “A Totally Unique Word

  1. Helena Hann-Basquiat

    I agree, actually. Something is unique or it’s not — wonderfully unique works because ‘wonderfully’ is a descriptor, not a qualifier.
    I also love the word “Sexagenarians”.
    If I’m terribly caffeine deprived, I will sometimes get a six shot Americano from Starbucks, which I refer to as my ‘sexy coffee’.
    I believe I may be unique in using that sobriquiet. Totally.

  2. summerstommy2

    I agree too. You cannot have degrees of uniqueness.
    Though like Helena ‘wonderfully unique’ works for me in that it draws attention to the unique quality you are trying to express.
    I am sure this is not the only word in our language we baby boomers get riled up about.
    It is irritating hearing people misuse ‘saw’ and ‘seen’.

  3. john from Scotland

    As a sexagenarian may I agree you CANNOT quantify unique. In UK even dear old BBC does so perhaps we are fighting a loosing battle but I for one will continue to try!!!!

  4. I’ve never considered this point before, thanks for bringing it up!

    I think that John’s comment is significant. He says you cannot *quantify* ‘unique’. Jen writes that you cannot *qualify* unique.

    Qualifying is “describing by enumerating the characteristics of”; quantifying is “determining how much of”. I would argue that John’s choice of word is correct and Jen’s is not (sorry, Jen!). The word ‘unique’ can take characteristics that don’t detract from its absoluteness.

    ‘Wonderfully’ is neither qualifier or quantifier – as Helena says. It doesn’t affect absolute status. ‘Totally’, ‘pretty’, ‘somewhat’ and ‘a bit’ are definitely quantifiers, and we’re all agreeing they’re out.

    I’d suggest that ‘almost’ is a qualifier but not a quantifier – it doesn’t try to define a particular amount of what follows. It explains that the following thing nearly made the grade, but didn’t quite. (Had it made the grade, it would still have /absolutely/ made it.) That’s a characteristic, so I believe ‘almost unique’ is a perfectly valid phrase, not just “at a push”.

    Let me know if you disagree!

    • I agree with the thrust of your point, Stuart, but I pedantically disagree on the wording – in Grammar terms, qualify means “to modify” and that’s exactly what you can’t do with unique.
      At least some of the Sexagenarians of whom I speak would have a fit at “almost unique”, hence why I suggest it only gets in at a push. You might have a good argument why it’s right, but if they have already refused you an interview because it’s in your CV, when are you going to put that argument across?

  5. Great post. I’m very interested in this type of thing and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see words “misused” (though I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself).

  6. so that’s what I am… no not unique… a sexagwhatever.

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