Instead of grinding your teeth about "very unique," pat yourself on the back for recognizing a widespread case of lexical broadening.
The word "unique" means "one of a kind," but the way people use it has been shifting. For example, here are some real-life sentences from British and American speakers:
- "She is completely unique." (That comes from a video describing the then-star of the Royal Ballet in London) or
- "It needs to be more unique than that." (Listen for that in the film "Inception"), or even
- "…most uniquely," which comes from a video about Andi bags, sort of a cross between a purse and a tote bag.
In all three examples, the word "unique" has been modified, either by an intensifier adverb ("completely" as in "completely unique") or by a comparative or superlative ("more" and "most" as in "more unique" and "most unique"). And some people complain that modifying the word "unique" like this is technically not logical. How can something be more unique than something else? Isn’t it the case that something is either unique or not?
Well, yes, and yet, we all know that the three cases above aren't mistakes—they aren't made in error by young children just starting to use the word or by adult language learners. Instead, it is a use that suggests the real meaning of the word is expanding to also include "uncommon" or "rare." (When words take on additional meanings like this, it’s sometimes called "lexical broadening," and another example is how, for many people in the southern United States, "coke" has expanded to mean "any soda.")
What are gradable vs. absolute adjectives, and degree modifiers (aka intensifiers)?
Time for a fun area of beginner semantics, which is the study of what words mean. Using an adverb to boost the meaning of an adjective is often called "intensification" in linguistics. Some examples of intensifiers are "very," "really," and "incredibly." In other words, when we say someone is "very tall," or that a sunset is "incredibly beautiful," we mean more than merely tall, and more than just somewhat beautiful. (1)
Do you notice anything about the adjectives "tall" and "beautiful"? They’re all gradable. Some can be measured, like height, and some can't, like beauty, which is subjective, but either way, they all have degrees of gradation, which is what allows them to be intensified. To understand this, think of gradable antonyms (pairs of words with opposite meanings), like tall/short, good/bad, pretty/ugly, and big/small.
Adjectives such as 'tall' and 'beautiful' are gradable.
Part of what makes these gradable is that they depend on the context of the situation. For example, a good dessert could be a Twinkie for some people, while to others, a Twinkie would be a very bad dessert compared to a warm chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream.
And no matter how persistently advertising tries to convince you otherwise, beauty is subjective. In other words, one person can be gorgeous to some beholders, and the very same person could be viewed as not pretty at all to someone else in the same moment. And a small elephant is a lot bigger than a big bug!
Now compare gradable antonyms to complementary antonyms. These antonyms complement each other (not "compliment," with an "i," like "great haircut," but with an "e," like "they complete each other"). Two examples are "awake/asleep" and "present/absent." If someone is absent, they can't be present in the same context. And even when people sleepwalk, they are not awake. Both properties can’t be true at the same time (unlike pretty and ugly). We’ll call these "absolute" adjectives, and define them as being mutually exclusive in any single context.
A final way they are different from gradable adjectives is that they don't work well with comparatives. For example, we can say someone is "smaller" (in other words, a gradable adjective can be a comparative), but it doesn't make much sense to say someone is "more absent" (in other words, an absolute adjective doesn’t work well as a comparative).
Adjectives such as 'unique' and 'awake' are absolute.
At this point, it should make sense that the "one of a kind" meaning of "unique" makes it an absolute. It's arguably even more absolute than some other absolutes like "awake."
Normally, it is strange to use intensifiers to modify absolute adjectives. For example, "this is an extremely one-bedroom apartment," or "humans are really bipedal" sound peculiar. However, there is variability in how we can combine adverbs and adjectives, meaning that some intensifiers work with gradable adjectives better than others, so you can find other exceptions to these intuitive rules.
For example, we technically can use intensifiers to modify absolute adjectives in some cases, like "very awake" or "so absent," but that use is different from modifying gradable adjectives, like "very tall" or "so short."
"Very awake" is understood to be metaphorical. Although you can be in a deep sleep or be sleeping lightly, you are still asleep—there isn’t really a way to be more asleep, or less asleep, so intensifying "awake" by saying you are "very awake" takes on the meaning of "alert" or "energized." Similarly, "so absent" sounds like the speaker may be intending to express humor—or, an opinion about the absent person.
When you say you are 'very awake,' you are modifying a gradable adjective.
In some ways, using "unique" in a gradable way is an example of an exception to these adverb-adjective combo rules. Like the metaphorical meaning of "very awake," intensifying "unique" can give it the "uncommon" definition flavor. And the fact that we frequently modify adjectives like “awake” to mean “alert” lends some credence to modifying “unique” to mean “uncommon.”
This 'uncommon' unique is not uncommon at all
And using "unique" in this way isn't new.
Back in 2006, Ingela Stephenson found that this traditional view of absolute adjectives as non-gradable and not being able to take degree modifiers "conflicts with the actual usage of ‘unique.’"
That study showed that all uses of "unique" increased in British English between 1996 and 2005—by 74%! It also found that using "unique" with a comparative like "more unique" or a degree modifier like "extremely unique" was common and remained constant over time.
People seem to use 'unique' more today than they did a couple of decades ago.
More recently, in 2013, a corpus study by Laura Maggia Panfili also found that despite not being a technically "acceptable" definition, people do often use "unique" to mean "uncommon." Plus, even though many people who have this pet peeve complain that the "true" meaning of "unique" is disappearing, Panfili found that "Contrary to prescriptivist assumptions, the non-gradable sense of unique is gaining popularity, not losing it." In other words, people are using "unique" a lot in the traditional way too. People are just using "unique" a lot more in a lot of different ways.
Do we use gradable 'unique' in a haphazard way?
Here is one last defense of using "unique" to mean "uncommon": There may be some rules that govern when you can modify "unique" and when you can’t. In contrast to our earlier examples, which use "unique" with "completely," "more," and "most," imagine a case like "In order to keep your account secure, your password must be unique." We would be less likely to find an intensifier in a case like this, because password uniqueness is more quantifiable. Password generators don’t generate "pretty unique" passwords because any duplication or overlap would create passwords that aren’t strong enough.
It’s also likely that people say things like “very unique” about something surprising and noticeable, like a purple cow—very unique!—as opposed to a hand-made basket, which is unique, but not remarkable enough to make people want to draw attention to its uniqueness.
'Unique' isn't unique
This desire to modify the word "unique" isn't the only time we've taken a powerful word and used it to get a strong point across, and the usage catches on.
For example, it sounds normal to say "almost never," to mean "seldom," but that expression isn’t really any more logical than "very unique."
And a pet peeve example is the metaphorical use of "literally" to add emphasis to something that is obviously figurative, like "My life became a literal nightmare" or "I literally died when she said that." (3) We know it’s not exactly correct, but we recognize it, we hear it, and more importantly, we understand it. No one is fooled or confused by these sentences, so language is doing its job.
In the past, we've encouraged you to avoid modifying "unique" if you want to be safe, and that advice still stands, especially in any kind of formal writing, and mostly because we know it’s a common pet peeve. But, in informal speech, we'll all continue to hear it, and like any language change, we don’t have to embrace or even like it, but it's also not worth getting too worked up over in everyday life. The next time someone describes something to you as "very unique," instead of grinding your teeth, pat yourself on the back for noticing an example of lexical broadening.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
1. Andrea Beltrama, "Intensification and Sociolinguistic Variation: A Corpus Study" (Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 41/14, 2015).
2. Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams, Introduction to Language.
3. Tony McEnery and Andew Hardie, Corpus Linguistics (Cambridge, 2012).
4. Laura Maggia Panfili, Grading Non-Gradable Adjectives: A "Totally Unique" Corpus Study" (2013)
5. Ingela Stephanson, "A Study of the Adjective "Unique" (2007).