Archive for September, 2016


A slightly unique post

So apparently I come here every three or four months, to complain about things (often AI hype; omg don’t get me started on the latest “Watson” ad campaign owch).

Today I’m going to complain about this common English-prescriptivist notion, which I randomly encountered recently on a page that I won’t bother linking to because it was just like so many others, that it’s Very Bad Usage, and even Incorrect, to use adverbs of degree or comparison with the word “unique”. You can’t, this notion says, say “very unique” or “more unique”, for instance.

This is because, the notion says, uniqueness is an all-or-nothing concept; something is either unique or it isn’t, so there aren’t degrees or meaningful comparatives.

And this is just wrong.

Every physical object is unique, if you look hard enough, as is every situation. There has never been a bottle of hair shampoo with exactly this many molecules in it and a label exactly this many hundredths of degrees askew. There has never been an evening with exactly this number of fireflies in all of the yards for ten miles all around.

Even an electron, which is about as close as we get in this physics to something that’s exactly the same as a bunch of other things (all other electrons), has a unique position (and/or momentum and/or combination of the two).  If you want to be all quantum and deny that an electron has a single definite position, you’ll still grant that it has some sort of probability-function over a set of space-time coordinates, and that that function is different from the function corresponding to all other electrons.

So if everything is unique, why is the word “unique” useful? Exactly because some things are more unique than others: unique in more ways, or unique in more important ways. This tract house here is unique because although it’s identical to its neighbors in most ways, no other house in the county has an inverted horseshoe with Mickey Mouse’s face on it (a souvenir of Disneythingie) over the door. But compared to the house on the corner, which sits on top of a fifty-foot tower and can be reached only by a long spiral staircase, and which inside contains only one large room, which the inhabitants variably divide into sections as the mood strikes them, using bedsheets suspended on hooks from the ceiling, the tract house isn’t really unique at all.  The tower house, being very unique, is much more unique than the Disney-horseshoe one.

And that makes perfect sense.

So away with this simplistic “you can’t say ‘very unique’ or ‘more unique'” rule; it’s silly. The terms have perfectly reasonable meanings, which they communicate clearly to any competent speaker.  I don’t know where this idea started, and I’m insufficiently motivated to look it up, but I suspect that it’s one of those ways of showing that you’re a certain sort of card-carrying language maven, like the bit about not splitting infinitives.

Which isn’t to say that there are never better alternatives. If you really want to talk about general statistical properties, “more unusual” or “very unusual” might be better. Hauling out the bigger gun of “unique” is best done when you want to say that there isn’t anywhere a thing that’s the same as this one in the relevant sense, rather than just saying that things like that are comparatively rare.  And so “really amazingly unique” is best reserved when you really want to say that, in a particularly important and relevant sense, that the thing has properties (really, and amazingly) that nothing else has; not just that it’s sort of odd.

Thus ends the meta-prescriptivist lecture o’ the day (week? month?).  :)