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I posted earlier about the adjective unique and a few reasons why I think there are situations in which very unique and the like are reasonable things to say. (These situations include (1) the comparision of different unique things by how common their type is, e.g., something that’s one-in-a-hundred is unique but something that’s one-in-a-billion is very unique, or (2) as a means of qualifying how removed a unique thing is from other comparable things, e.g., a dog that could fly would be unique, but a dog that could fly and talk would be very unique) And you very well may disagree with me that these are things you would say, or you may disagree that these are not the way that people generally use very unique. That’s fine, as my intention with the previous post was to establish merely that it is not logically impossible to have something be very unique, not that the way it is used is ideal. In fact – I think I didn’t make this clear in the earlier post – I prefer to avoid the word unique because it smacks of advertising gimmickry, and very few things are, in my opinion, unique.

renaissanceguy commented in response to the earlier post with a reasonable and nicely stated objection: “I think it is important to have words to express precise concepts. We already have a way of expressing the concept that people mean when they say “very unique,” which is “very unusual”. If something is sufficiently unusual to be one-of-a-kind, then it is good to have a word for it.” I disagree with the assumption of the second sentence that if there is one way of expressing a comment there is no desire for a second, but otherwise I agree. After all, I majored in mathematics, so I am familiar with how pleasant life is when all terms have precise and explicit definitions, and it would be good (I think) if the world lent itself to as cut-and-dried of definitions as abstract mathematics does. However, this is not the case. Very unique does often incur on the domain rightfully owned by very unusual, but this is a matter of the definition of unique often incurring on the domain of unusual, as in:

(1) That’s a unique hat.

The problem is that here unique and unusual blur more than one would think. Take, for example, the site Unique Coat Hangers. The hangers they sell are in one sense not at all unique, since you can buy more than one of the same style. But at the same time, the individual styles may be unlike any other given style of coat hanger one has ever seen. So the hangers of a given style are themselves merely unusual even though the style is unique. This is a weird situation, and sort of tough to wrap one’s head around. It’s no wonder that unique and unusual get interwined, given that complex situations like this are not unusual. (Think of “unique” clothing items, “unique” cars, “unique” ideas, etc. that are one-of-a-kind in one person’s view though merely unusual in the the global view.)

My point is that you could have unique fill a single role, as “one-of-a-kind”, but you’re going to have to specify what kind the thing is the only exemplar of, and that’s a murky problem. Here’s an open question with regards to this: given the sentence

(2) The striped coat hanger was unique amongst those in my closet, and the style was unique amongst those manufactured since 1985, yet my sister had two of the exact same hanger in her house,

is it fair to say The striped hanger is unique? Does your opinion change with the sentence My striped hanger is unique? My opinion is that the first is sort of unacceptable but the second sentence is a bit better. I’m interested in what other people think, though. Can something be unique if anything like it exists elsewhere? Can something be unique within a context (in my closet, to me, in its design, etc.) if something like it exists elsewhere?

If you find the answers to these sorts of questions simplistic, and you can’t think of any situations in which the uniqueness of an item would be open for debate, then you are wiser than me and are perhaps justified in holding the opinion that unique can’t mean unusual. But if you too are having trouble delineating unique and unusual, I think you can see why I am willing to let their usages overrun a bit. (Of course, I am not advocating that unique and unusual have anywhere near identical meanings. I can think of situations in which I would only consider unique acceptable and other situations where I would only consider unusual acceptable.) It would be nice if you could say that unique can only be used for truly “one-of-a-kind” objects, but it’s not possible in practice to do so.  Unique will at times mean something like unusual, and in those sorts of cases, it wouldn’t be surprising or illogical to see modifiers like very, somewhat, rather, terribly, notably, etc. modifying unique.

Summary: Definitions in the world are fuzzy, and they overlap. Unique and unusual aren’t as distinct as one might like to think. Because the category of unique things and the category of unusual things aren’t distinct, it’s reasonable to expect/allow unique to behave like unusual in some circumstances.

So here’s a common refrain:

“Very unique is an example of perversion not uncommon to every-day usage.” – The Worth of Words, Ralcy Husted Bell, 1902.
“A thing is unique (the only one of its kind) or it is not. Something may be almost unique (there are very few like it), but nothing is ‘very unique.'” – Paul Brians

If we agree with the grammarians, very unique is an abomination, for unique means one-of-a-kind, and how can something be more or less one-of-a-kind? You’ll note that this is a instance of argument #2: that logic dictates that some bit of usage is impossible. (And here I want to point out that if “very unique” is really logically rubbish, then why do so many otherwise logical people understand what it means?) However, the idea that uniqueness can be graded and different things can be more or less unique is actually logically reasonable.

For starters, everything is truly one-of-a-kind. Just as there are no two identical snowflakes, there are no two identical objects anywhere in the world (excluding, perhaps, microscopic particles). Identical twins are different from each other. So are two boxes of cereal on the shelf at the supermarket (one will certainly have more bits of cereal than the other). So if everything is unique, why not just say it’s a meaningless word and do away with it altogether? Because, within our minds, some things are sufficiently similar to be lumped together in our minds as identical for certain purposes. This leads to an argument that X is unique if and only if there is no other thing of the same kind as X that can be considered identical to X.

The problem with this definition is that different things can be considered identical in different contexts. Take the case of Harry Potter. There’s two swords of Godric Gryffindor. One is made by goblins and is therefore imbued with special powers, and the other is a clever replica that looks almost the same, cuts the same, but lacks the magical powers. To the uninitiated (e.g., Bellatrix Lestrange), the two swords look and behave identically, but to a wise goblin (e.g., Griphook), they are noticeably different. Thus, to Bellatrix, the swords are not unique, but to Griphook they are. I am amazed I managed to make a grammatical point using Harry Potter. So if a single item can be viewed as unique or not by different proportions of the population, does it not make sense to say that things that are unique to more or less of the population can be referred to as more or less unique?

Secondly, something can be one-of-a-kind, with the “kind” having a variety of different sizes. To say that a person is unique is to say that he or she is one amongst six billion. To say that a mole on my skin is unique is to say it is one amongst a hundred (the number of moles I have). To say that a particular insect is unique is to say it is one amongst 300 quintillion (an estimated number of insects in the world). So it sure seems that intuitively a “unique” insect is more unique than a “unique” mole. So that insect, in my opinion, is very unique.

In a similar vein, one unique thing can be different from similar objects in more or fewer ways. In math-speak, it could be unique on different numbers of dimensions. A sculpture, for instance, could be unique in size, shape, material, placement, inspiration, sculptor, price, location, color, time-period, or intention. Suppose sculpture X is unique as the only tin sculpture of the Renaissance, but sculpture Y is unique only as the only black marble sculpture weighing more than a thousand pounds done by Georg Cantor in 1897 to protest Prussian treatment of the French. Sculpture X is then one of more kinds than sculpture Y is one of, and furthermore, sculpture X is one of a kind in a much more general kind than sculpture Y. So it again is logically possible to argue that sculpture X is more unique than sculpture Y.

My point is that very unique is not logically reasonable only to someone who interprets the definition of unique in a downright contrarian way. There are many possible ways for two things to be more or less one-of-a-kind. So it cannot be claimed that logic precludes the use of very unique.

Furthermore, this whole argument is precarious anyway, as it assumes that the sole definition of unique is “one-of-a-kind”. The Oxford English Dictionary does give this as a definition for unique, but it also notes a second definition that has been in use since the 18th century and has been “very common” since the middle of the 19th century: “standing alone in comparison with others, freq. by reason of superior excellence; unequalled, unparalleled, unrivalled”. This is attested in writing as early as 1809, by R. K. Porter: “As it was thoroughly unique…”, and further examples from the 19th century occur in force in a full text search of Google Books for “very unique”. This undermines argument #1: even authors of the good old days succumbed to the reasonable temptation to modify unique.

Summary: Unique can be modified without complaint; better writers than me have done so for almost 200 years and there is no reasonable logical argument against it. However, unique is, in my opinion, overused, in part because everything is unique in some sense. As such, I would recommend avoiding unique (modified or not) when you can say it another way.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

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I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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