For grammar nuts, the word unique is very interesting because it is the canonical example of an absolute grammatical term. It is unable to be modified by any adverb or used in a quantitative comparison. Either a thing can be described as unique or it cannot. A thing cannot be very unique, strikingly unique, more unique than a breadbox, less unique than a ham sandwich -- or anything other than unique. Or as Midori suggests: perhaps everything is unique.

Dictionary.com tells it like this: " . . . 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."

Other so-called absolute terms are absolute, chief, complete, perfect, prime, equal, and parallel -- although in non-mathematical usage the last three have a little wiggle room.

This is a matter of semantics, not grammar. It's a cousin to the famed linguistic problem with the sentence "colorless green ideas sleep furiously". Grammatically, it's correct. But it's completely meaningless, and thus bad english.

All words have inherent context and connotations. They have meaning beyond the mere definition and part of speech of the word. For example, idea is an noun. And yes, adjective + noun is syntactically correct, as is noun + verb. But ideas can't have color. They're intangible. And they can't sleep - they aren't living beings. "Green ideas sleep." is perfect grammar but semantically hollow.

"Unique", like everything else, carries extra meaning. In the strictest sense, it's an absolute term, like "pregnant", or "dead", or "same". You're either pregnant or you aren't. Two things are either the same, or they're not. Using quantifiers with absolute terms is meaningless. "These pants are a little bit the same as those." Sounds wrong, is wrong.

The function of language is to carry meaning - if what you're saying has no meaning, it's bad language. Bad English doesn't just mean "bad grammar". So don't try the "grammatically okay" argument, it doesn't hold water.

It has come to be, however, that "unique" can mean something along the lines of "new and different from most other things":
"Ooh, Julie, that dress is very.. unique!"
"CALL NOW ABOUT THIS UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY!!!!!"
"Our unique audio compression technology delivers realtime e-media blah blah buzzword blah"
We already have plenty of words and phrases that mean something like "Not like most others":

..and so on. So, while I appreciate your refreshingly different use of our language, couldn't you use one of those, instead of trying to force the word unique into situations it really doesn't belong in? I'm tired of hearing it.

One time, not so long ago, I used to be a purist about the word "unique," insisting that it had a singular value and therefore could not be modified by any adverb indicating a matter of degree, such as "very." I see that I was not alone. For a few brief, shining moments in my superior grasp of the English language, I even at one point insisted that the word "unique" could not be properly modified at all. (I later relented when I discovered that this was a truly unique misconception.)

Having seen the writings of some other folks who share the disapproval of the term "very unique," I gave it some more thought and decided that, contrary to the protestations of other purists, the word "unique" can properly be modified in a number of ways. My very unique reasoning is this: the word seems to have an absolute meaning requiring a binary value, but does not.

When speaking to matters of degree, there are three states of a an adjective or adverb: positive, comparative, and superlative. Think "good, better, best" for an example; or "excellent, more excellent, most excellent" for another. Purists argue, in effect, that the meaning of the word "unique" precludes it from usage in either the comparative or superlative forms. Nor can it be intensified with "very" or weakened with "somewhat," and so on. Unique, meaning "one of a kind," is either true or false, they say, with no in-between.

But what does it mean to be one of a kind? The way I think of it, there are two ways in which that concept cannot be limited to a binary value, but must account for matters of degree. One of these is breadth or category, while the other is depth or intensity.

Imagine ten cars, all Model-T Fords. In 1911, they are black, just like Henry Ford and God Himself intended. Now imagine that one of those is bright, fire engine red. That car, in the scope of your set of ten, is unique. Now take that red Model-T and propel it into the year 2001, surrounded by Ford Mustangs, Honda Accords, and BMW 750i’s. That Model-T is still unique, but in a very different way. There is no other like it, but in relation to a much larger set. In other words, it is unique not just with respect to nine other cars, but with respect to millions. In 2001, that car is more unique than in 1920.

Hurl that same car forward another fifty years, to 2051, where every car is aerodynamically styled, runs on fuel cells or cold fusion, and comes in colors not yet imagined by the human mind. They are made of materials unheard of in 1920, and unusual even in 2001. The controls and gauges are all different – maybe these cars have altimeters. Their computing power far exceeds anything on a desktop in 2001. Is that Model-T unique in 2051? Ya, sure, you betcha – but look at how. Any observer can find more items of difference than items of similarity. The red Model T in 1921 was different in only one way –its color. This Model T in 2051 is different from all other cars in more ways than we can count. Both are "one of a kind" but one is profoundly more so than the other – and hence, more unique.

The purists will sputter, "but you can’t say that!" True, from a logical, mechanical point of view, both cars are unique, and that’s all – no more, no less. But humans are not computers – we don’t use language mechanically, we use it intuitively. On a purely intuitive level, the red car in 1921 is unique; in 2001, it is more unique, and in 2051, it is most unique. (Or, in the alternative, "very unique.") Because that’s they way we think about language, and the common usage proves that is the case.

And that’s the most unique way I’ve ever heard it argued.


Note: Unique is not a superlative.


Source: nowhere but the dark, twisty passages of my mind.

Once upon a time there was a discussion based on the premise that "very unique" is bad grammar. However, the problem starts with the mention of grammar. For some claim that it is not an issue of grammatical correctness but indeed semantics. Personally I would use a different label altogether, but hey, what do I know? Let me try to pull the various threads together and bang the nail in the coffin of this debate once and for all.

What we are really talking about here are gradable and non-gradable (sometimes referred to as extreme) adjectives. A gradable adjective is one which can be made less or more extreme by using a modifier, for example 'very'. Take 'pretty' as your gradable adjective. A flower can be 'quite pretty' or 'fairly pretty' but neither of these comes close to just straight 'pretty'. If we want to say the flower is more than just pretty, we can choose to say 'very' or 'really' pretty. If we are lucky, it could be 'incredibly' or even 'extremely' pretty. We are able to give the adjective, in this case 'pretty', different strengths or indeed grades - hence its grammatical tag of gradable adjective.

Are you still with me?

Ok, so let's try a non-gradable adjective. One of my personal favourites: 'superb'. Now, try combining that with very. Sounds wrong, doesn't it? Now try with really or truly. Ok, that works, in a way that accentuates the quality. But it doesn't work with extremely. Why not? Because superb is already of the very highest rank. Using something like utterly, truly, completely - any modifying adverb which suggests 100% is acceptable but anything less just sounds wrong.

Let me quote from Mr Swan:

Some adjectives and adverbs refer to qualities which are gradable - we can have more or less of them. For example, people can be more or less interesting or old; jobs can be more or less difficult; cars can go more or less fast. Other adjectives and adverbs refer to non-gradable qualities - we do not usually say that things are more or less perfect, impossible or dead.

So now is when I tell you that 'unique' is considered a non-gradable adjective. You can work out the rest for yourself, can't you? And if you can't, let me do it for you. Something is or isn't unique. There are no possible grades within that. In the same way that it cannot be 'slightly unique' neither can it be 'very unique'. However, the reason why we can use 'truly' with unique and it still sounds perfectly acceptable, is because we are emphasising the quality. 'Very' does not do the same thing; it quantifies and therefore cannot be applied to 'unique'.

One of the most important points that has been pointed out to a certain extent, is that English is a living language and this means that things which our great-grandparents said now sound stuffy and old-fashioned to us. Extrapolate that a little and it is not too difficult to see how things which were correct in Shakespeare's time are now deemed incorrect and vice versa. How do you know if it's right or wrong? Most of the time, provided you are a native speaker (or have lived in an English speaking country for some considerable time) you should absolutely trust your instincts. Does it sound right? Then it probably is. Does it sound wrong? Then it probably is.

I know that sounds kind of woolly and there are times when you want a hard and fast rule, but it does have a name (she suggests, helpfully). We call it 'collocation' and it just means the conventional combination of words, especially prolific in idiomatic and colloquial English. For example, and I borrow from my main man again, we say 'a golden opportunity' but never 'a golden chance' - there is no rule, here. It is just convention. It is what sounds right.

If it's important to you and you are in doubt there are many superb works of reference out there - use them. My personal favourite (indeed, I call it my bible) is Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, published by Oxford University Press. And yes, ok, I work for OUP, but that is partly in the hope that one day I will bump into my guru in the corridors and I will have the opportunity to prostrate myself at his feet ;)


Reference work used: (apart from years of teaching English and an MA in Language Variation and Change)
Practical English Usage, by Michael Swan.
Published by Oxford University Press.
Second edition, 1995
ISBN 0 19 431197 X

He vaulted the railing screaming profanity, teeth flashing as he dropped to the cold, wet blacktop. He fell, and was gone. Glistening drops of something speckled our faces as we rushed to watch his fall, dashing forward across the metal balcony in the late September downpour. Rain and fog swallowed his descent, and we turned slowly to regress through the heavy door behind us. It opened reluctantly, screaming as the stench of rotting wood emerged cruelly from the dim stairwell to torture our nostrils for a second time. Trees are vindictive in death. We put our sleeves over our noses and mouths to block out the abhorrent stench and watched a multitude of glistening insects flee down the steps, falling from the ceiling and walls in panic as we relit our torches. The first stairs were the worst, their anguished moans amplified by the tight quarters as we tread upon them warily, dreading their betrayal. Our footsteps echoed down the narrow staircase, advertising our presence well in advance, perhaps even to the bottom of the spiraling pit. After a while we no longer saw the insects, the swarm having outdistanced our cautious pace. They vanished into the darkness, and were gone.

The door at the bottom of the stairwell was composed of decaying wood, covered in mold and filth. It opened without protest, its hinges well oiled despite their dilapidated appearance, its handle easily turned though it was caked in muck. As we exited, we could see that the opposite side of the door was in good repair, coated with a thick layer of varnish and having the benefit of a clean, shining knob. The smell of decay finally faded, and was gone.

The unoccupied street outside was full of water. Garbage slowly trundled down the gutters to clog the one inadequate drain, pulled inexorably by the flow. Excess flooded the road, ankle deep, rising by the second. We stood astonished, clothes drenched in the shower, ignoring the biting cold and harsh wind of a dying autumn in the realization that there was not a body. Streetlamps towered over the scene, mocking, their tall black poles a shelter from retribution. Hatred for their immunity and knowledge was soon dulled by gratitude, however, as a lone shadow darted into the night. Our pursuit was long and tiresome, our antagonist both resourceful and rapid; turning often, stopping never. We tracked him through brick-paved back lanes and boulevards well-worn by foot traffic. More than once, he forced us to make an unexpected detour through an unlocked doorway as he exploded through vacant houses, knocking over tables and chairs and shattering delicate, flower-adorned vases in his desperation to escape us.

Then he turned into an alley. We laughed, knowing that it was a blind alley and that its windowless walls were to be his doom. We turned the corner with trepidation, his reputation a final deterrent, and saw him pacing pensively before the opposite wall. Rain flowed down his face, not quite obscuring his deformed features. His eyes were shut, hands behind his back as he walked to and fro. As we approached, a flash of silver! An explosion! Blood.

I didn’t scream. I didn’t even wince as my finger fell gracefully to the ground in slow motion and my left hand erupted in pain. It happened so fast, like a branch being snapped from a dead tree. The sounds of the world around me seemed to dull as I stared thoughtfully at the stump that used to be my thumb, repulsed but not frightened. Maybe I should have been frightened. Sometimes it seems like people can’t stand differences anymore. At least, that was the thought in my head as they closed in from all sides upon me. The last thing I was really aware of, I think, was overjoyed laughter from the gun-wielding man at the end of the alley, barely obscuring the sound of his clothes being ripped from his body and punctuated only by the occasional snapping bone. As I fell, cold hands obscuring my vision, I almost thanked him.

U*nique" (?), a. [F. unique; cf. It. unico; from L. unicus, from unus one. See One.]

Being without a like or equal; unmatched; unequaled; unparalleled; single in kind or excellence; sole.

-- U*nique"ly, adv. -- U*nique"ness, n.

 

© Webster 1913.


U*nique", n.

A thing without a like; something unequaled or unparalleled.

[R.]

The phenix, the unique pf birds. De Quincey.

 

© Webster 1913.

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