Mighty Red Pen

October 11, 2007

Do as MRP says, not as MRP does

Filed under: At home with MRP,Grammar goddess,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:18 pm

The other day, MRP was overheard to exclaim, “It’s extremely unique!”

And like a train wreck, I couldn’t look away and I couldn’t make it stop. I said it at least two more times.

Okay, here’s the deal: A thing cannot be extremely unique. It cannot be very unique. It cannot be the most unique. It’s either unique or it isn’t.

O’Conner says, “There is no degree of uniqueness, because unique is absolute.” Fowler intones, “It is applicable only to what is in some respect the sole existing specimen, the precise like of which may be sought in vain.”

What they said.



  1. This reminds me of my favorite simple tongue twister.

    Unique New York.

    Say that out loud five times as fast as you can and just try not to end up saying “U neek U nork”.

    Comment by Frida's Big Gay Day — October 13, 2007 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  2. MRP, I appreciate your confronting these issues, but I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Fowler’s writing of the classic definition of unique, but the term has broadened beyond the lone instance of something. I cannot recall a person ever using “unique” in the original sense. Now we throw it around like “special” and “unusual.” Isn’t everything on the Home Shopping Network “unique?” A 16-karat Elvis candlestick — unique. A 16-karat Elvis candlestick owned by Richard Nixon — extremely unique.

    Comment by Helen's Dad — October 16, 2007 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

  3. p.s. For Frida …

    Unique New York
    Uniquey York
    Unique-a New York
    U neek U nork — damn!

    Comment by Helen's Dad — October 16, 2007 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  4. Helen’s Dad — You know I like to be flexible about language, but I have to be firm on this point. Fowler notwithstanding (he’s kind of a musty old fellow), the word unique means “Being the only one of its kind” (American Heritage).

    However, you’re right to say that the usage of the word has evolved. For example, American Heritage has a special “usage note” regarding unique: “For many grammarians, unique is the paradigmatic absolute term, a shibboleth that distinguishes between those who understand that such a term cannot be modified by an adverb of degree or a comparative adverb and those who do not. . . . Most of the Usage Panel supports this view. . . . But as the language of advertising in particular attests, unique is widely used as a synonym for ‘worthy of being considered in a class by itself, extraordinary’ and so construed may be modified.”

    Thanks for coming to my rescue, though.

    Comment by mightyredpen — October 17, 2007 @ 7:55 am | Reply

  5. The OED gives the tertiary meaning of ‘unique’ as ‘remarkable or unusual’, which can certainly be qualified.

    However if ‘unique’ changes meaning to become a synonym of ‘unusual’, we will need another word to mean ‘one of a kind’. There don’t seem to be many synonyms for this at the moment.

    And there’s a difference (thankfully) between the Home Shopping Network’s use of language and everyone else’s.


    Comment by JD — October 25, 2007 @ 10:58 am | Reply

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