Can Something Be “Very Unique”? Modifying Absolute Adjectives

Monday, October 252 min read

The word “unique” means something one-of-a-kind. So, how can such an object be “very one-of-a-kind”? Is there a better way to describe a pink lobster or a five-leaf clover? We’ll explore how to modify adjectives in these unique situations.  

What Is an Absolute Adjective?

The English language is filled with different types of adjectives (a word that describes a noun). Comparative adjectives — “smarter,” “faster,” and “higher” — are used to compare things. Superlative adjectives — “smartest,” “fastest,” and “highest” — describe extremes.

Then there are absolute adjectives, such as “unique.” These adjectives don’t deal in degrees; they’re supreme or infinite, and as such, they can’t be compared or intensified.

Take the word “impossible.” If something is impossible, it means it can’t be done. Period. A task can’t be more impossible or less impossible. Same with “unique,” “complete,” “ideal,” “inevitable,” “unanimous,” and “whole.”

What do all these words have in common? While the list isn’t exhaustive, these adjectives are binary. Either they are, or they aren’t. They can’t be made smaller or larger. They are already at their upper limit.

Can You Modify Absolute Adjectives?

The general rule is that absolute adjectives can’t be modified. And yet … sometimes writers do it.

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union..."  — The Preamble to the United States Constitution

"'Toad Hall,' said the Toad proudly, 'is an eligible self-contained gentleman's residence very unique; dating in part from the fourteenth century, but replete with every modern convenience.'" — Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

In both the above examples, the modifiers, while technically unnecessary, give the writing a different feel and style.

To form a “more perfect Union” is different from forming “a perfect Union.” The accurate version implies that the People are attempting to get closer to perfect, not that they have created something perfect. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction.

In Mr. Toad’s dialogue, his description adds to the quirky tone and gives the reader a feel for the character and his home. In this case, his house is not only one-of-a-kind, but it’s so interesting that it’s worth noting.

In addition to nuance and tone, it might make sense to modify an absolute adjective with an adverb that indicates completeness. A writer might want to call something “fully ridiculous,” “completely final,” or “entirely unique” to describe elements of a whole — it’s not just the bathroom of this house that’s a crazy design, it’s the whole thing.

Finally, be careful when using “more” and “most” with other types of adjectives. Think “more smarter” or “most tallest.” Some rules just can’t be bent.

Featured image credit: AlexSava/ iStock

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