WNW: Very Unique?

I hate that phrase. Gets my eye all a-twitchin'.

The reason is that unique means the only one or without its like or equal.

Therefore, unique is not something that can be compared by degrees, unlike like how warm, old, or bright something is. Those words can have very added to them and make sense. Something can be more (or less) warm, old, or bright.

Then you have words like unique that are absolute modifiers. That means the word, by definition, is not something that varies by degrees. It either is or it isn't.

It's absolute. (Hence: absolute modifier.)

So you can't be slightly dead. You're either dead or you're alive.
(We aren't going into the technicalities of medicine and life support and all that . . . you know what I mean. And of course there's Miracle Max, but that's a different story.)

You could argue whether some words are absolute modifiers, like Jerry and George do in an episode of Seinfeld with dry. Jerry insists you can't over-dry something, just like you can't over-die. So he says something is either wet or it's dry. (But, you could argue, there's the in-between stage. Where does damp fit in?)

Here's a list of some other absolute modifiers (words you do NOT add very or other comparing words to):
absolute
overwhelmed
straight
opposite
right
eternal
fatal
final
identical
infinite/finite
mortal/immortal
perfect
irrevocable
original

Add "very" to any of those, and you'll see that they don't make sense.

You cannot have a "very fatal" collision. (If you mean several people died, that's something else.)

A final exam must be the last one. (You can't have one exam that's more final than another. The first one wouldn't be final.)

While trying a case in court, a lawyer wouldn't say that the defendant's DNA was very identical to the one at the crime scene.

Those absolute modifiers are a bit more obvious than unique or original. You're less likely to accidentally use one of those.

Now that you know the concept, apply it where it's most easily forgotten: something either is or is not unique.

Don't add very.

Comments

Sarah M Eden said…
So I have a question, and I'm not trying to be snarky or anything, I'm really wondering...

You can't add "very" to any of those words. Can you add "nearly"? I know I've done that... "nearly fatal" or "nearly identical." My gut tells me that's okay, but my gut is not always reliable.
Annette Lyon said…
Yes, I think you can use "nearly," because you're describing GETTING to that point, not the point itself.

Using "fatal": Once you're dead, you're dead, but you can ALMOST die. So NEARLY works.
T said…
I love that you referenced Miracle Max... "mostly dead"...

I remember YEARS ago when someone said that they were "kinda pregnant" and I about spewed my soda - not because she was a teenager, but because the very idea of being "kinda pregnant" cracked me up!
Lesa said…
This is helpful! I learned a lot this morning. Thanks for sharing.
Cheri Chesley said…
I've had a similar experience to the "kinda pregnant" situation. A friend once said she was "a little bit pregnant." Um, no, you either are or you aren't. Still, it's worth a giggle.

Now I want to go through everything I've written and check to see if I've done this. I don't think so, because I tend to err on the side of what sounds logical, and very dead just doesn't sound logical.

Ah, Miracle Max. "There's a big difference between 'mostly dead' and 'all dead.' See, 'mostly dead' means 'slightly alive.'" :)
Rebecca Irvine said…
Thanks for a very unique post.

Just kidding! (I couldn't resist.)
Kristina P. said…
What a unique point of view! :)

No, I think it's something we just naturally do, and it's a good reminder.
Jessica G. said…
Better inform the staff of the Antiques Roadshow! They will have to use cue cards from now on until the symptoms disappear.
Sue said…
The liberal use of the word "very" is one of my pet peeves when I am editing papers for people. And it is a common mistake!

Great post.

=)
Shanda said…
So I guess "very nearly perfect" is probably out, huh? :)

I must apologize to the world for my liberal use of the phrase "very overwhelmed."

Woops. {cringe}

Thanks, Annette!


Shanda :)
DeNae said…
Sometimes I think that if you have to use the word "very" you haven't tried hard enough to describe what you're trying to describe.

"Very" happy? Ecstatic, delighted, thrilled.

"Very" wet? Soaked, saturated, drenched.

"Very" unique? Don't quit your day job.
Kimberly said…
Ah, Miracle Max...that made me giggle. So did DeNae. Naturally.

I've no idea if I've been guilty of this or not. I suspect I have been though and feel the urge to read through the five chapters I just revised all over again.

Well explained!
My 11th grade English teacher broke us of that one. She also broke us of using the word "aggravating" to describe someone who is bugging us.
L.T. Elliot said…
Oh, the shame. I've actually used "very unique" before. *straightens shoulders* But now that I've been schooled, I know better! I will revise my wicked ways! =D
Heidi said…
I agree that it would sound weird to say "very fatal" or final or any of the other specific examples you gave. However, I think "very straight" doesn't sound the least bit odd. I guess I don't think of the word "straight" as an absolute (and I am very much in love with the word very).
wendy said…
Gosh, and here all this time I thought I was very, very unique.
turns out I'm just unique
what's cool about that?????
Chas Hathaway said…
What about blave? Can I put a very before that?
Annette Lyon said…
Chas, That's hysterical!

To go all word nerd on ya, isn't BLAVE a verb? :P
Coral said…
So sorry, but I vehemently disagree on one of these accounts. I think you can measure overwhelmed by degrees. I say "slightly overwhelmed", and sometimes even "Extremely overwhelmed" in my writing and I think it sounds perfectly fine.
for example; "school is very overwhelming." or "Slightly overwhelming." it can be measured that way. :)

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