Grammar (Please) Don’t: Very Unique

Dear Megan shakes a finger at absolute modifiers.

Dear MeganHave you heard this lady? Her name is Anna-Maria Hefele, and she has trained her vocal chords to produce two notes at once, a talent known as polyphonic overtone singing. Apparently it’s impressive, because she has 6.6 million hits on YouTube and people are raving about her in the comments. I think it sounds like someone sharpening a saw blade with a cat, but I’m not really musically inclined. I digress.

My beef isn’t so much with Anna-Maria as much as it is with the person who wrote this about her: “Anna-Maria Hefele is an amazing German singer with a very unique talent.” This brings us, gentle readers, to the age-old “common use vs. language rule” debate: Can something be “very” unique?

No, it can’t. Neither can it be “somewhat” unique or “rather” unique. Unique means “one of a kind,” and you can’t modify that; it’s either unique or it’s not, just like I’m either pregnant or I’m not (I’m not). I am not somewhat pregnant or rather pregnant or very pregnant (but like I said, I’m not pregnant). It’s an absolute, and you can’t modify absolutes.

But Dear Megan, you lovers of the “language is fluid” argument will surely cry, everybody does it and has been doing it for a long, long time. Stop being such a stick in the mud.

Pish tosh. Fine, yes, since the middle of the 19th century, the word has had a tendency to take the wider meaning of “uncommon, unusual, remarkable,” according to The Oxford English Dictionary. And other blogs have defended “very unique.” One commenter simply identified as “buhi” went so far as to post:

“And language is, for better or for worse, a democratic tool whose meaning is decided by the mass of humanity, not by people who execrate the non-absolute use of ‘unique.'”

I disagree in this particular case, but I agree with the bigger picture (plus I admire buhi’s moxie).

Here’s why: We have lots of words that people can use to describe varying degrees of whatever. For example, “Anna-Maria Hefele is an amazing German singer with a very <unusual, uncommon, rare, special, extraordinary, remarkable, novel, original> talent.” Why assign a new meaning to unique when there are so many other words that will do just fine?

PS: The same goes for “completely destroyed,” too. For example: “News of Dear Megan’s pregnancy completely destroyed the spirits of legions of her male fans.” The “completely” is unnecessary. And for the last time, I’m not pregnant.

Got a question for me? Fire away in the comments section below.

Tags: freelancing

Category: Editing
Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is a mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal with 15 years' experience in communication and marketing. She served as ClearVoice's managing editor for four of those years, helping brands create great content and managing the company blog. She's passionate about words, language, grammar, style and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Erin Cline

    Megan, can we please talk about thesaurus crimes? I get so frustrated when it’s obvious there was a thesaurus involved in word choice. I feel that the proper way to use a thesaurus is to make sure no one can tell you did. AmIright?

    • Megan Krause

      #soright, Erin! I know it’ll be tough, but please sit tight until Wed., Nov. 5, at which point I shall address this issue. Thanks for writing!