Q&A: It’s very unique

Last week our Q&A used the term ‘very unique’, and in doing so, succeeded in waking up the interwebs. An ABSOLUTE catastrophe! Let’s take a look…

Q: Well, wasn’t that a great Q&A last week? All ‘reality show’ themed and that.
A: Oh, thanks. Um, who are those other people?

Q: Other people? I don’t know what you’re talking about.
A: They’re standing right behind you, all holding brickbats.

Q: Oh, right, THOSE people. Well, I’ve gathered them all here as we had some similar feedback – namely about your use of the term “very unique”.
A: Ah. I see. Well, take a seat everyone. Yes, we did have a few people asking us about that. It’s that old chestnut, “modifying an absolute” – when the word you’re using doesn’t need any further embellishment, because it is not open to interpretation.

Q: Yes, that’s the one. So, ‘very unique’ isn’t acceptable then?
A: To the purists (which seems to be everyone assembled here), and to lovers of logic, something cannot be more unique than something else, because the definition of unique is “one of a kind”. It is either unique or it isn’t. There are no ‘degrees’ of uniqueness.

Q: Well yes, that’s what we’ve always been taught.
A: And you’re right. In non-conversational contexts (e.g. a novel, newspaper story, etc), you’d want to dust off the barge pole and steer well clear of modified absolutes like “more unique”, “completely destroyed” or “most quintessential”. However, in casual conversation, it’s something that is all too common.

Q: Yes, but that doesn’t make it right.
A: No, it doesn’t. But that’s the English language for you. It may not be “proper” to say these things, but modifying absolutes has crept into everyday usage more and more in recent times. In the case of “unique”, this started being watered down more than 150 years ago, often used when ‘unusual’ or ‘uncommon’ would have been better. As a result, modifying “unique” is now reluctantly acceptable in certain contexts.

Q: Contexts like a chatty Q&A I suppose?
A: Well, precisely. Well put. Thank you all for coming, mind that step on the way out. Okay… yes, thanks for reading. Goodbye.

Q: Oh, just one more question…
A: Who are you? Columbo?

Q: I have no idea who that is but I will Google it later. I just wanted to ask about where you referred to Sydney with “their festival” instead of “its festival” – shouldn’t collective nouns be singular?
A: Yes, collective nouns like city names, band names, business names etc should be singular. Good spotting!

Q: We’ll call it 1-1.
A: Fair enough. Always happy to oblige!

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