Thursday, September 16, 2010

Absolute Modifiers: The Meaning of Unique

Michael writes:
Hey Snarky,
My English teacher printed out an story and highlighted where Diddy says of Rick Ross, "He's a very unique artist." Our assignment is to figure out what's wrong with that statement. But I don't see anything wrong with it.

My guess is that your class is going to be having a discussion about absolute modifiers, and that your teacher is going to say that the word unique is an absolute modifier. In this example, I don't agree that it is.

Quick rule: 
  • Absolute modifiers are adjectives and adverbs that shouldn't be compared or modified because they have an absolute, all-or-nothing quality. Examples of absolute modifiers include complete, perfect, final, total, and (often) unique. For example, the word perfect means 'having no room for improvement.' You wouldn't say that a grade of 100% was 'very perfect.' You'd simply say that it was perfect. 

The word unique is an absolute modifier when used in the sense of being 'one-of-a-kind' or 'the one and only.' Lady Gaga is very unique.

Yet both the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary include an alternative definition for unique: 'unusual' or 'very remarkable.' It seems to me that when Diddy calls Rick Ross a "very unique artist," he means it in this sense. So in this example, unique doesn't qualify as an absolute modifier.

The big picture: This is a great reminder of how the rules of language are neither set in stone nor locked in a box. Grammar is constantly evolving because it is always being influenced by common usage.

Should dictionaries and style guides set the grammar standard or is their purpose to reflect common usage? What do you think?


  1. My son wrote a story this week for his third grade class. Apparently he saw the "happiest happiest fish in the ocean" last Sunday in Miami Beach. Must have been South Beach is what I am thinking.

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