Sunday, February 5, 2006

pet peeve number two

My colleague Bryan Camp, a talented and thoughtful writer, provided me with today's pet peeve:  "very unique."

Unique means "being the only one" or "unequaled" in its first two listed meanings in Merriam Webster.  As the notes following that entry indicate, modifying "unique" when it is used in those senses is incorrect.  When it is used to mean "peculiar" or "unusual" (the latter-listed meanings), then modification is acceptable.  As numerous other sources indicate, a split of opinion exists--some grammarians do not accept those later-listed meanings and hence cringe at any modification of the word.

So let's see . . . a snowflake is not "very unique"--it's unique.

Standing in line at the grocery store may be unique every time that one does it, but unless a fight breaks out over someone's having 20 items in the 12-item express lane, it's probably not even somewhat unique--in fact, it's very UN-unique in the latter-listed meanings of the word.

Eating gravy on apple pie may be unique, "somewhat unique," or "very unique."

Each day is unique in the sense of the first-listed meanings, but often not unique in the sense of the latter-listed meanings.

In short?  While everything is unique in the sense of being the only one, not everything is very or somewhat unique--or even unique at all--in its peculiarity or unusualness.  A Westlaw search for "very unique" returns 289 documents in the allstates database and 214 in allfeds.  A quick review indicates that most of the "very unique" usages mean "very unusual."  Rather than rile up the grammarians, why not use "unique" to convey "one of a kind" and "unusual" to convey "unusual"?  Then modify unusual to your heart's content!!

(There is a federal distrct court decision out of California that uses "very unique and unusual"--guess that judge wanted to cover all bases!!)


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