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Modifying Absolutes

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

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #693
I just wanted to let you know...

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 nachos are half price until 6:00,” or “I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to miss my deadline.” 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 talking to the person. Whereas it might feel like I’m insisting that we must go out to eat if I just write, “Nachos are half price until 6:00,” it feels more like a suggestion or me just sending helpful information if I lead into the idea a little more gradually: “I just wanted to let you know that nachos are half price until 6:00.” It’s more like I’m saying, “Do you want to maybe go get nachos tonight?” or “I know you love nachos, so I thought you might want to know that they’re on sale tonight.” It’s less insistent.

Similarly, it might sound like I don’t care if I email my editor and say, “I’m going to miss my deadline,” but if I start with what some people might consider an empty phrase and say, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to miss my deadline,” then it feels less like a confident statement, and more like a sheepish admission of my failure. 

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

In Lara's example—"I'm writing to tell you that I am resigning from my job"—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 it's a bad habit—sometimes these “buffer phrases” have a place in the world. Just check in with yourself every once in a while to make sure 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. Also notice that at least sometimes, as in my examples, they can make you sound less forceful or confident.

Avoid Filler Words

On the other hand, there are words that typically don't serve any purpose.

For example, Sha from the Philippines wrote in 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 that valley girl in my head, especially when I'm speaking off the cuff. Also, these words can sound natural in speech but look amateurish in writing, unless you’re writing dialogue and want it to sound like casual speech.

All I can say is yes—it's often 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 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 you slip up. Getting friends who are more articulate might help because we tend to talk like our friends, but that seems extreme. Maybe you could take a public speaking class.

Empty Phrases to Avoid

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 website 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, 5) 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.

Google ngram of "very unique"

For example, Fowler considers “unique” to be weakened in the sentence “Those are very unique maracas.” 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 gave her a hard time after she made a sign advertising her “unique” new subdivision. I used to live in one of those 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.

Reserve "very unique" for things that are truly one of a kind.

Garner’s Modern English Usage is especially negative about the phrase “very unique,” but does say that it’s OK to modify the word “unique” in some ways like “truly unique” for emphasis and “almost unique” for things that are rare. (5)

Even though “very unique” is widespread, has been in use for a long time, and is increasing, it’s still a good idea to avoid it if you want to be safe because it’s one of those things that always shows up on lists of pet peeves, meaning it’s the kind of phrase that’s still likely to get noticed in a negative way. 

Similar absolute words that people tend to modify when they technically shouldn’t include “destroyed,” “perfect,” and “dead.” Technically, “completely destroyed” is the same as “destroyed,” and “absolutely perfect” is the same as “perfect.” I will, however, argue that when you’re writing about zombies and vampires, there’s a difference between “dead” and “100% dead.”

References

  1. Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p.  808.
  2. unique. American Heritage College Dictionary, Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p.1476.
  3. unique. Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unique (accessed June 2, 2019).
  4. unique. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/214712?redirectedFrom=unique#eid (accessed June 2, 2019).
  5. unique. Garner’s Modern English Usage, fourth edition. Oxford University Press. 2016.

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