Modifying Absolutes

What's wrong with saying something is "very unique"?

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #041


Today's topic is wordiness.

I've heard from a lot of you who have pet peeves about different wordy phrases, and it's a lot of fun to hear what gets under people's skin and why.  Here's one example from Lara in New York:

One that has always bugged me is “I'm writing to tell you that.” It drives me crazy when people begin letters this way. As in “I'm writing to tell you that I am resigning from my job.” Just tell me! OK, so you're writing to tell me, but just tell me. Is this correct or is this just another redundancy?

How to Use "Buffer Phrases" to Avoid Giving Commands

I have to admit that I've been struggling with this one ever since I said not to start e-mails with the phrase I just wanted to let you know. For example: "I just wanted to let you know that I love your show,” or “I just wanted to let you know that commas are on sale today.” I couldn't figure out why starting sentences that way felt so right but seemed so wrong at the same time.

Then Jeff from Fountain Valley wrote in to comment that many of these seemingly empty phrases act as buffers, carry certain emotional weight, or demonstrate personality—and then it all came together in my head. When I'm writing an e-mail, I often imagine that I'm speaking to the person. Whereas it might feel like an abrupt command to walk up to Amy and say, “Commas are on sale today,” if I preface it with what some people might consider an empty phrase and say, “I just wanted to let you know that commas are on sale today,” then it feels less like a command and more like a helpful tip that I'm providing in case she's interested.

Check in with yourself every once in a while to make sure that you're not using buffer phrases for no reason, especially when you're writing something formal.

In Lara's example, the writer might be anxious about resigning and wanting to add some extra words as a buffer. So even though I still believe that a lot of the time people just use these phrases out of habit—and that it's a bad habit— I'll concede that sometimes these “buffer phrases” do have a place in the world. Just check in with yourself every once in a while to make sure that you're not using them for no reason, and be especially aware of them when you're writing something more formal than an e-mail.

Avoid Filler Words

On the other hand, there are words that typically don't serve any purpose. For example, Sha from the Philippines wrote to ask if I have any suggestions as to how people can avoid using filler words such as actually, so, and like. As I told Maret from Chicago, who also wrote in asking how to stop peppering her speech with the word like, I am especially sympathetic to this problem because it's a bad habit I picked up as a teenager, and I still have to consciously suppress the valley girl in my head, especially when I'm speaking off-the-cuff.* All I can say is yes—it's bad to use these empty words, and the only way I know of to stop doing it is to make a conscious effort to stop. If part of the problem is that all of your friends talk the same way, and if they're interested in stopping too, then it might be helpful to make a pact and point it out to each other when any of you slips up. Getting friends who are more articulate might help, but that seems extreme.

Empty Phrases to Watch Out For

Here's another quick peeve: a listener named Anne points out that the phrase in order is often unneeded. For example, some people say, "I am going to the market in order to buy groceries.” It would mean the same thing if they said, “I am going to the market to buy groceries.” In order is unnecessary.

Another listener named Rocky seems to be hiring because he wrote in with a long list of complaints about phrases that sound like they could only come from cover letters and resumes, and he included some imaginary responses to them. For example, he writes, “'Please don't hesitate to contact me.' OK, I was sitting here in a state of apprehension about whether to call (or not), but since you have now given me permission, I guess I'll go ahead and call. 'Call me at your earliest possible convenience.' Don't we always contact someone at our own convenience?” He would rather see something simple and straightforward like “Call me if you have questions.”

Should You Modify Absolutes?

Now here's another wordiness issue that actually turns out to be controversial. Kellie left a comment on the Grammar Girl blog saying that her pet peeve is when people modify the word unique. For example, “That is the most unique painting I've ever seen.” The issue is that the primary meaning of  unique is one of a kind; it's an absolute, so something can't be more unique than something else. Chris, who teaches English in Japan, and a listener named Julie also wrote in about modifying absolute words. Here's the deal: every authoritative source I checked (1,2,3) said it's bad to qualify or compare the word unique, and then in the next breath they all acknowledged that it's commonly done, and that it's been done for a long time.

For example, Fowler considers unique to be weakened in the sentence “Those are very unique marimbas.” He says, “It must be conceded that unique is losing its quality of being not gradable (or absolute),” but he also notes that it continues to be controversial.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, since the middle of the 19th century unique has “had a tendency to take the wider meaning of ‘uncommon, unusual, remarkable’" (4).

A lot of usage notes talk about the role advertising plays in diluting the meaning of unique (1, 2). I had to laugh because I have a friend who sells new homes and I recently gave her a hard time after she made a sign advertising her “unique” new subdivision. I live in one of these subdivisons, so I'm not knocking them, but you can get lost because all the houses look alike. They are anything but unique, and her sign just cracked me up. So now I can tell her she is contributing to the downfall of the language!

It seems to me that the trend toward talking about degrees of uniqueness is an example of how language changes. I had to ask myself if I am on the side of sticking with the older rule or going with common usage, and in this case I think unique should continue to mean one of a kind. There are plenty of other words that people can use to talk about degrees. A piece of art can be the most stunning painting you've ever seen, or the marimbas can be very unusual. There's just no reason to assign a new meaning to unique. So it's good to know that this is a controversial area of language, but I can't recommend modifying absolute words with qualifiers in phrases like very unique, completely destroyed, or most fatal.

*Off-the-cuff is an idiom that refers to an unplanned or impromptu remark.


  1. Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p.  808.
  2. unique. Amerian Heritage College Dictionary, Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p.1476.
  3. unique. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unique (accessed February 15, 2007).
  4. unique. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition. Oxford University Press, http://tinyurl.com/2vcgpz (accessed February 15, 2007).


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