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According to Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook, absolute adjectives are those words “that expresses within itself the highest degree of comparison, an absolute quantity, and thus will not submit to further comparison. Examples of such words are unique, perfect, round, square, honest, vertical, horizontal, perpendicular, exact, endless, frozen, dead, full, empty, and straight.”(359)However, some absolute adjectives do not seem to fit in this category and therefore inspire debate. One of these absolute adjectives has inspired debate since the 19th century, and that would be the word unique. There are many definitions and many ideas surrounding this word and here we will try to organize and answer this ever-raging debate of proper usage.

The pure phrase adjectives expressing absolute qualities, means that these types of adjectives are defined as being absolute, complete, free from imperfection, perfect! These types of adjectives are a whole and cannot be altered or sub-classified because then they would loose their complete state. Given this definition, adjectives of absolute qualities are considered to be themselves and nothing else, but there is a question of why people tend to alter and sub-classify absolute adjectives. An example of this is the word UNIQUE, everyone knows the word unique is defined- as one of a kind- and nothing in the world could be compared to it. The Prentice hall Encyclopedic Dictionary of English Usage, states the definition of unique as followed, “Unique- technically, the only one of its kind. Colloq. Usage allows sense of “rare”: rather, more, most, or somewhat unique. (Webster’s list rare as a synonym). BUT, almost, truly, certainly, perhaps, or in many ways unique are strictly correct; truly one of a kind.”(398) So, why do people modify this word and create multiple types of the word unique when describing or limiting a noun. An example of the wrong definition provided by the Cambridge British Dictionary is as followed, “unique. Adjective, being the only existing one of its type or,more generally, unusual or special in some way”(http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/unique) We often hear people say-

                                     That hat is kind of unique!
                                     Those shoes are so unique!
                                     She is sort of unique!

These sentences are considered right in speech but wrong in grammar because unique cannot be modified or altered. To be unique the definition of it has to be complete, absolute, and perfect. There cannot be some, sort, kind of, or a little unique. That cannot be possible! It is incorrectly said and wrong considering grammar rules! Even if my friends in the following paragraphs tend to think unique can be altered, it cannot.

      The correct way to use the word unique is –
                                                    That hat is unique
                                                    That girl is unique!
                                                    Those shoes are unique!

This keeps the meaning of unique intact and specifies that the noun is unique- one of a kind! The problem comes when language changes through time and unfortunately grammar rules too. According to The Dictionary of American-English Usage, Margaret Nicholson argues that unique is a word that can only be applied to something that is if it’s sole specimen and that is the reason it separates it self from all the adjectives. Unique is a word that cannot be altered or substituted because if it were then its definition would be faulty. She even goes on and argues that people who tend to alter or substitute its definition are Illiterates and are WRONG. “…For which the illiterate tend to substitute it- remarkable, exceptional, rare, marvelous, & the like. In the qualities represented by those epithets there are degrees; but uniqueness is a matter of yes or no only; no unique thing is more or less unique than the other unique thing, as it may be rare and less rare.”(617) The only proper way in which unique can have an addition or an alteration to its definition would be with the use of adverbs. These adverbs do not affect the definition or word of unique, but give it an alternative. These adverbs are quite, almost, nearly really, surely, perhaps, and absolutely. They have to be used in a precise and intelligent manner where unique would not be affected. Some examples are provided below.

	My dress is absolutely unique!
	The car is quite unique
	The house is surely unique!

As one can see the definition or the completeness of the word unique is not altered nor substituted, rather the adverb causes the meaning to be emphasized. The French first introduced the word unique in the English language according to The New Fowlers Modern English Usage, at the beginning of the 17th century with a definition of “single, sole, solitary.”(808) This said the word unique was thought to be a foreign word in the English language up to the 19th century when its use started to become common and where the definition of it started to become altered. Everyone knows that unique is loosing its value, its completeness, and its original definition due to progress in language. The dictionary also states that, “It must, I think be conceded that unique is losing its quality of being ‘not gradable’ (or absolute), but copy editors are still advised to query such uses while the controversy about its acceptability continues.”(809) If everyone becomes aware and informed of the proper way to use unique and the real definition of it, then unique can be saved as an adjective expressing absolute qualities.


As Sharon and many other purest will argue, something that is unique is one of a kind, something that is so different that it can only be unique. However, many people believe that something can be quite unique, rather unique, and somewhat unique etc. It is the belief that something that does have a uniqueness to it may not be completely unique, or it may be so unique that, that one word alone does not describe the true uniqueness of it. Therefore, there are times when the word unique is in need of something to help describe the quality and degree of it better.

Garner states in his work A Dictionary of Modern American Usage that “very unique, quite unique, how unique, and the like is slovenly…our modern culture lacks and does not want absolutes, in intellectual life or in language.” (669) This is not a new debate, the idea of unique not being an absolute has been going on since the 19th century; therefore, it makes it hard to fathom that modern English speakers are the ones to hold responsible for the way the word is used. English speakers may not want absolutes, however, to say that finding a way to use unique differently is slovenly and lazy is far from the truth.

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, suggests, “the dispute over the word unique turns on the idea that it has a single, absolute meaning, which is itself an oversimplification.” (557) and it goes on to say that “Dictionaries such as New Oxford(1998) and Merriam-Webster (2000) recognize that in many of its applications, unique means “outstanding,” “remarkable,” “unusual.” …it can equally be thought of as an extension of the words range…With its extended meaning, unique can legitimately be qualified by words such as more, very etc.” (557-558) According to The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, you can use unique as an absolute adjective. However, it does state that you can use other words to intensify and extend the words meaning. Therefore, at certain times in certain circumstances the word unique is so much more than an absolute adjective.

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage is not the only usage guide to argue the point that unique can use other words to express its degree or extend its meaning. A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, states that, “In all its current senses unique may be used with words that imply degrees, such as more unique and quite unique.” (528-529) Once again unique is not a pure absolute adjective, in the sense that people recognize the fact that there are degrees of uniqueness. A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, goes on to say that, “Some people believe that there is something about the meaning of unique that makes expressions of this kind “illogical” or improper, but these expressions are used freely by outstanding writers and educators today… One grammarian, commenting on the much condemned quite unique points out that the word here means “unparalleled”...He then says of the word unique itself: “I don’t see anything quite unique in it.”” (529) If highly intellectual people are using unique in a non-absolute form, is it not fair to say that the word is not an absolute?



The debate over the word unique has been an on going one since the 19th century, and will more than likely continue to be debated for many years to come. By adding more, rather, quite, or somewhat, to the word unique it establishes degree, and also extends its meaning and value. The only point left to be made is this; every snowflake is unique, and it is the degree of intricacy that determines why one snowflake maybe more or less unique then another.


Although my two classmates are in debate with the usage question of the word unique, the truth is that a consensus can be achieved.

The usage question on the word “unique” troubles many high school and college students. Usually, the word unique is used as an absolute. When someone writes, “He is more unique” (fix me) appears since the statement contradicts the definition of the word unique- being one of a kind. Some non-purists dare to question the authority of usage dictionaries and professors by using the word unique to express range.



“How unique is he? He is more unique than him.”

The word unique allows to be modified as follows: almost unique but not rather unique. (Modern American Usage 45-46) According to Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans from, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, they believe that less unique implies a degree as more unique (364).

Other words such as perfect are also used as absolutes meaning that it cannot be modified since it expresses itself within the highest degree. The Oxford Dictionary and Usage Guide to the English Language defines perfect as, “complete; faultless; not deficient; very enjoyable; exact, precise; entire, unqualified.” (438-439) Hence, something cannot be “perfecter” or “perfectest” since this word cannot be modified with –er or –est like most adjectives. However, in the U.S. Constitution the word perfect was modified: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union….” (Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook 90-91) In this case “more perfect” is used to demonstrate, “something nearer to the state of perfection.” (Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook 90-91) Perfect allows less perfect and more perfect since “nothing achieves perfection and degree of approximation” is acceptable. (Modern American Usage 45-46)

Other people believe the word perfect expresses itself complete in comparison and is flawless. A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage states that the “word perfect can only in theory be qualified by more or most and be comparable to more best or most worst.”(364) So more perfect or most perfect is not acceptable. (Prentice Hall Encyclopedic Dictionary of English Usage 281) Similarly, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage states, “That is perfect which is not only complete but is also of high quality and free from defects of blemishes.”(364) The word must express itself to the fullest degree. Does this mean that our founding fathers were wrong when they wrote the U.S. Constitution? Not necessarily, the true question to ask oneself, “Is the word used in everyday speech?” Most people when speaking do use more perfect or most perfect. Similarly, people do say more unique and most unique. As Nicholson mentions in A Dictionary of American-English Usage, “…hence in order to form a more perfect union need not embarrass Americans.” (417) Thus, Americans should not be uneasy, if they are, of the grammar used in the U.S. Constitution. Likewise, the usage question persists; professors and students will continue to disagree.

One thing that most people agree is in the definition of the word pregnant. That someone cannot be more pregnant or most pregnant. Since people do not articulate, “She is more pregnant that her” it is not in reputable use. A person is either pregnant or not. This is a word that most people will not argue against; purist and non-purist are in harmony and agree with its form of usage.


Unique This word has received an extraordinary amount of critical attention, with various rights and wrongs made to hang on its use. In its primary and historical sense, the word singles something out as the only one of its kind: Sydney’s Opera House is a unique building. In this absolute sense, the word cannot be qualified by words such as more or very. By implication, there are no degrees of uniqueness. Yet Fowler (1926) argued that some modifiers such as almost, really, truly, absolutely could be used with it, because they focus on whether the state of uniqueness is actually achieved. Fowler also allowed that quite unique was possible, provided you were using quite as an intensifier rather than as a hedge word (see further under quite). Since British English is more inclined then American to use quite as a hedge word, uses of unique that are unobjectionable in the US may be queried in the UK. That apart, the dispute over unique turns on the idea that it has a single, absolute meaning, which is itself an oversimplification. Dictionaries such as New Oxford(1998)and Merriam-Webster (2000) recognize that in many of its applications, unique means “outstanding,” “remarkable,” “unusual.” Some would call it a “loose” application, but it can equally be thought of as an extension of the words range- something that happens to many words over the course time. With its extended meaning, unique can legitimately be qualified by words such as more, very etc., and they in fact show that it’s not being used in an absolute sense. Without such qualifiers, it still means “the only one of its kind”-other things being equal. Those who doubt whether unique continues to express an absolute meaning can take advantage of other words such as sot le.(The Cambridge Guide to English Usage 557-558)

Unique once meant “only” as in his unique son. It can no longer be used in this sense. Today unique may mean “in a class by itself,” but it more often means “unparalleled” or simply “remarkable.” In this, it is following the pattern of singular. In all its current senses unique may be used with words that imply degrees, such as more unique and quite unique. Some people believe that there is something about the meaning of unique that makes expressions of this kind “illogical” or improper, but these expressions are used freely by outstanding writers and educators today. One grammarian, commenting on the much condemned quite unique points out that the word here means “unparalleled” and that we certainly do say quite unparalleled. He then says of the word unique itself: “I don’t see anything quite unique in it.” See also comparison of adjectives and adverbs. (A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage 528-529)

Unique.-Unique is applicable only to what is in some respect the sole existing specimen, the precise like of which may be sought in vain. That gives a clean line of division between it and the many adjs. For which the illiterate ted to substitute it- remarkable, exectional, rare, marvelous, & the like. In the qualities represented by those epithets there are degress; but uniqueness is a matter of yes or no only; no unique thing is more or less unique than the other unique thing, as it may be rare and less rare. The adverbs that unique can tolerate are, quite, almost, nearly really, surely, perhaps, absolutely , or in some respects; & it is non-sense to call anything more, most, very, somewhat, rather, or comparatively unique. Such nonsense, however is often written. WRONG; this is a rather unique distintion./ I have just come across the production of a boy aged seven which is, in my experience somewhat unique./ A very unique child, thought I. But secondly, there is another set of synonyms-sole, single, peculiar to., &c.-from which unique is divided not by a clear difference of meaning, but by an idiomatic of meaning, but by an idiomatic limitation of the contexts to which it is suited. It will be admitted that we improve the two following sentences if we change unique in the first into sole, & in the second into peculiar: in the always delicate & difficult domain of diplomatic relations the Foreing Minister must be the unique medium of communications with foreing powers./ He relates Christianity to other religions& notes what is unique to the former& what is common to all of them. The emendations are easy to make or accept; to explain the need of them is more difficult; but the reason why unique is unsuitable is perhaps that it belongs to the class of epithets discussed in positive words. (A Dictionary of American English Usage 617)

Unique. Some small modern dictionaries allow weakened uses of the word to go unchallenged. For example, the Cambridge International Dict.of English (1995), after stating that as an adj. unique is ‘not gradable’, defines it as follows: ‘being the only existing one of its type or, [emphasis mine] more generally, unusual or special in some way.’ (And so it is gradable after all?) The COD (1995) first list its primary meaning (‘of which there is only one; unequalled; having no like, equal, or parallel’), but adds what it calls a dispute use, ‘unusual, remarkable (a unique opportunity)’. All around us, in print and in speech, is abundant evidence illustrating the ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ use, but also examples (esp. as comparatively, more, most, rather, somewhat, very and some others) of the secondary disputed (or informal) use. What are we to make of this?Origin. L unicus yield Fr. Unique (and Sp., Pg., and It. Unico) ‘single, sole alone of its kind’, and in these Continental languages the word is still mainly restricted to contexts in which one-ness is implied (e.g. Fr. Sens unique ‘one-way road’, fils/fille unique ‘only son/daughter’). The French word made its way into English at the beginning of the 17c., at the first narrowly restricted to mean ‘single, sole, solitary’ (e.g. He hath lost…his unic Son in the very flower of his age,c1645). The OED points out that it was ‘regarded as a foreign word down to the middle of the 19th c., from which date it has been very common use, with a tendency to take the wider meaning of “uncommon, unusual, remarkable”.’ Distribution now. It is simple matter to lay one’s hands on 20c. examples of the traditional, ungradable sense of unique (which is the one recommended in this book): the unique and infrequently seen portrait of Sidney form the Upper Reading Room frieze- Bold. Libr. Rec., 1986; Hopkins’s inner ear is awash with an infinite and exquisite sense of unique vocal patterns- TLS, 1987.It is almost equally easy to find examples of the weakened sense (‘remarkable’, ect.), esp. when unique is tautologically preceded by certain adverbs (more, most, very,ect.): ‘Toad Hall,’said the Toad proudly,’ is an eligible self-contained gentleman’s recidence, very unique-K.Grahame, 1908; Almost the most unique residential site along the south coast-advt in Country life,1989; Our Institute is a very unique place, not only bridging the gap between Christians and Jews but also between academics and cleargy-New Yorker, 1993; Some design choices become so unique that they border on the eccentric and make a property difficult to sell- Chicago Tribune, 1995. It must, I think, be conceded that unique is losing its quality of being ‘not gradable’ (or absolute), but copy editors are still advised to query such uses while the controversy about its acceptability continues.(The New Fowlers Modern English Usage 808)

Unique- technically, the only one of its kind. Colloq. usage allows sense of “rare”: rather, more, most, or somewhat unique. (Websters’s list rare as a synonym). BUT, almost, truly , certainly, perhaps, or in many ways unique are strictly correct ; truly one of a kind.(Prentice Hall Encyclopedic Dictionary of English Usage 398)

Unique. Strictly speaking, unique means “being one of a kind,” not “unusual.” Hence the phrases very unique, quite unique, how unique, and the like are slovenly. The OED notes that this tendency to hyperbole-to use unique when all that is meant is “uncommon, unusual, remarkable”-began in the 19th century. However old it is, the tendency is worth resisting. But who can demand responsible use of the language from an ad writer who is loose enough to say, in a national advertisement, that a certain luxury sedan is “so unique, it’s capable of thought”? And what are we to make of the following examples? • “This year the consensus among the development executives seems to be that there are some fantastically funny, very exiting, very, very unique talents here….” Larry Doyle, “Searching for Jerry Seinfield,” Time, 16 Aug. 1993, at 18 • “Residents of college basketball’s most unique unincorporated village were in place yesterday afternoon, the day before their Blue Devils will face North Carolina….” Malcolm Moran, “On the Duke Campus, Fans From Bivouac,” N.Y. Times, 2 Feb. 1995, at B7. • “Turns out the University of Wisconsin football team is in the process of doing something quite unique.” “1-Point Wins Set UW Apart,” Wis. State J. 27 Oct. 1997, at 1D. Arguably, our modern culture lacks and does not want absolutes, in intellectual life or in language. But stick with the uncomparable unique, and you may stand out as almost unique. See ADJECTIVES(B). (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Garner 669)

Perfect; complete. That is complete which has all its parts, is fully developed, or carried to its fulfillment ( The toy ship was complete to the smallest detail. The plan has been a complete failure). That is perfect which is not only complete but is also of high quality and free from defects or blemishes. A complete day, for example, would be either twenty-four hours or the full hours of daylight, depending on how the word day was meant. A perfect day would be a full day but also a delightful or successful one or one that is some way had fulfilled the highest expectations. It must have no blemishes. It must be unqualified in its excellence. And it is this last meaning that is conveyed in what seems a negative use of the word, as a perfect fool or a perfect stranger. Neither of these terms suggests excellence in the person referred to, but the adjective is not, strictly, applied to the person but to his folly or his strangeness.(A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage 364)

Perfect: adjective ∕ p3fIkt∕ complete; faultless; not deficient; very enjoyable; exact, precise; entire, unqualified; Grammar (of tense) expressing completed action. Verb ∕ pә fekt∕ make perfect; complete. Noun ∕p3fΙkt ∕ perfect tense(Oxford Dictionary and Usage Guide 438-439)

Absolute words. Some words exclude comparison or partition; they denote what is superlative or complete, and they must be handled accordingly. The most familiar example is unique but not rather unique. Others are less commonly recognized, judging by their frequent misuse. Discomfit, for example, means to undo totally. It is foolish, then to say either partly discomfited or thoroughly discomfited. Again, essential means indispensable and does not admit of more or less, or even of so. Absolutes, moreover, cannot be used as it were ahead of the time when their truth would logically be seen. You cannot for this reason ask for an excellent cup of coffee. This is a premature superlative until you have drunk the coffee and declared it excellent. Note in this connection that very can be misused in much the same way. The reviewer who writes This is not a very good book implies that he had expected or been told that it was very good; whereas he expresses a conclusion of his own if he writes: This book is not very good. Partition is excluded by a similar logic, which sometimes wears the look of paradox. Thus no man can be said to be every bit the counterpart of Dr.Johnson: he is the counterpart or he is not; and the every bit reduces to absurdity the otherwise sound notion of a counterpart. If a theory does not hold much water, the argument against it is lost: the theory has some value. Still more absurd is the attempt to hedge in Necessity is only in part the mother of invention. With absolutes tautology shows the prentice hand: general consensus universal panacea, fully completed are blunders caused more often by carelessness than by ignorance. There remains perfect, which would seem to be the absolute word par excellence. Yet the Constitution speaks in its preamble of creating a more perfect union. Usage has in fact authorized more perfect and less perfect it being understood, perhaps. That nothing on earth achieves perfection and that the degrees of approximation to it deserve to be named. Many of the other absolutes are either abstract, like panacea, or the mere summit of competition, like excellence. (Modern American Usage 45-46)

Perfect: complete; flawless. NOT more or most perfect; use more nearly perfect. –ible (Encyclopedic Dictionary of English usage 281)

Perfect: (1)Pron. Verb perfect .(2) The purist argues that since perfect= free from imperfection, faultless, it is not capable of comparison. The OED is more charitable and point out that it is used as a “near approach’ to perfection; hence in order to form a more perfect union need not embarrass Americans. (A Dictionary of American-English Usage)


A Dictionary of Modern American Usage/ Bryan A. Garner. 1998. Print. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. 2004. Print. Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook. 2rd ed. 2009. Print


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