The perfectionist Sue Perlative and the pragmatist Ev Reethings Relative visited an antique show on their first date:
Ev: Hey, this grandfather clock is very unique.
Sue: Time out! "Unique" means "one of a kind, without equal," so it can't be modified by "very." The clock is either unique or it isn't.
Ev: But isn't it high time we allowed people to modify "unique"? Listen to these quotations from distinguished authors: "A very unique child, thought I." (Charlotte Bronte); "He's the most unique person I ever met." (Arthur Miller); "'Toad Hall,' said the Toad proudly, 'is an eligible self-contained gentleman's residence, very unique.'" (Kenneth Graham).
Sue: You're quoting a toad to support your point? Well, that is unique, or as you'd probably put it, "toad-ally unique." Saying very unique or totally unique is like saying someone is "very dead" or "very pregnant."
Ev: But wouldn't you describe a pregnant woman who's three weeks overdue as "very pregnant" or a squirrel that's been run over by 10 cars as "very dead"?
Ev: OK, so what other adjectives are incomparable and should never be modified?
Sue: Well, "incomparable," for one. You wouldn't say this clock is very incomparable. And, unless you're intending a sarcastic or hyperbolic effect, you should avoid phrases such as very omnipotent, rather eternal, slightly invulnerable, somewhat unanimous, very absolute, totally empty and very ultimate.
Ev: I find your advice to be very invaluable, somewhat supreme and more perfect than any I've received. It's totally complete, very ideal and quite singular.
Sue: Thanks for the compliments, but cut out all those unnecessary modifiers. And, whatever you do, never say something is totally irrevocable, somewhat unavoidable or very fatal.
Ev: But don't absolute words have a tendency to lose their superlative intensity over time? Isn't it natural for people to want to modify them? Aren't you trying to turn back the rather infinite hands of a somewhat immutable clock?
Sue: Well, I'll admit that insisting on the enforcement of rigid rules can be pedantic. And I suppose the modifying of certain incomparable adjectives is rather inevitable ... er, inevitable. Even the United States Constitution vows to create "a more perfect union." But remember that many people regard "very unique" as a somewhat egregious error ... (a very pregnant pause) ... Say, Ev, would you like to try out that rather perfect love seat over there?
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.
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