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Unusual Usages

Rosie Right

All of us have our problems with how the language is used. One of Rosie's annoyances has been the use of the word unique with a modifier, as in more unique, almost unique and most unique, and, it seems, most often in the phrase rather unique. She has always followed the rule set down by Eric Partridge in his book "Uses and Abuses" that "An object that is 'unique' is the only one of its kind in existence; there can be no qualification of the absolute without a contradiction of the quality which it asserts. The frequent use of unique(ly) to express mere rarity or excellence is incorrect." This is what Rosie was taught in grammar school.

If only life were that simple. Webster's Dictionary of English Usage makes mincemeat of this absolute rule. After describing the first meaning of unique as "being the only one; sole single," the editors write: "The use of unique approved by the critics is its second sense, 'having no like or equal'... and that "Use of this sense is widespread and shows no sign of dying out. As several commentators have noted, unique in this sense can be modified by such adverbs as almost, nearly, and practically..."

The New Oxford Dictionary of English has a usage note, and it falls in line with the permissive Webster's: "... since the core meaning of unique (from Latin 'one') is being only one of its kind, it is logically impossible, the argument goes, to submodify it; it either is 'unique' or it is not and there are no in-between stages. In practice the situation in the language is more complex than this. Words like unique have a core sense but they also often have a secondary less precise sense: in this case the meaning 'very remarkable or unusual,' as in a really unique opportunity. In its secondary sense, unique does not relate to an absolute concept, and so the use of submodifying adverbs is grammatically acceptable."

Oxford aside, there are certain concepts we learn as children and it is almost impossible to uproot them from our minds. Unique as an absolute concept is one of Rosie's fixations, and she is afraid she will continue to look slightly down her nose at those who "misuse" it — even Edith Hamilton and James Joyce who are both quoted in Webster's as using unique with a submodifier.

Uh-Oh: In an Art Review (April 4) by Deborah McLeod, we made an editing error and changed the writer's memento mori as momento mori. Spelling memento momento is definitely a disputed usage. Regrets!

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