Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: unique.

unique. Strictly speaking, “unique” means “being one of a kind,” not “unusual.” Hence the phrases *”very unique,” *”quite unique,” *”how unique,” and the like are slovenly. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that this tendency to hyperbole — to use “unique” when all that is meant is “uncommon, unusual, remarkable” — began in the 19th century. However old it is, the tendency is worth resisting. Unless the thing is the only one of its kind, rarity does not make it unique. For instance, if a thing is one in a million, logically there would be two things in two million. Rare indeed but not unique. Who can demand responsible use of the language from an ad writer who is reckless enough to say, in a national advertisement, that a certain luxury sedan is “so unique, it’s capable of thought”? And what are we to make of the following examples? o “This year the consensus among the development executives seems to be that there are some fantastically funny, very exciting, very, very unique talents here.” Larry Doyle, “Searching for Jerry Seinfeld,” Time, 16 Aug. 1993, at 18. o “Residents of college basketball’s most unique unincorporated village were in place yesterday afternoon, the day before their Blue Devils will face North Carolina.” Malcolm Moran, “On the Duke Campus, Fans Form Bivouac,” N.Y. Times, 2 Feb. 1995, at B7. o “Turns out the University of Wisconsin football team is in the process of doing something quite unique.” “1-Point Wins Set UW Apart,” Wis. State J., 27 Oct. 1997, at D1. Arguably, our modern culture lacks and does not want absolutes, in intellectual life or in language. But stick with the uncomparable “unique,” and you may stand out as almost unique. Language-Change Index — “unique” as a word of degree, as in *”very unique”: Stage 3. *Invariably inferior form. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Bad handwriting is an affectation for some people. They are amused by a writing style they have that’s hard to read.” Andy Rooney, Common Nonsense 184 (2002).
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