Adjectives make up around a fifth of all words in English. Some are often used alongside modifiers such as “hot” or “cold” (very), “short” or “tall” (quite), and “delicious” or “disgusting” (absolutely). Others, like “unmistakable” or “unequivocal”, are accustomed to standing alone, and it is these which are traditionally the absolute adjectives.
However, adjectives can be slippery customers and words which are intended as absolutes will inevitably be used alongside modifiers in the interests of self-expression, as a way of adding emphasis. Indeed, the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker points out the framers of the American Constitution were some of the first people guilty of this error, seeking, as they did “a more perfect union”.
In 1838, the grammarian Joseph Wright compiled a list of adjectives in his A Philosophical Grammar of the English Language which were not allowed to be modified. This group of words included “dead”, “false” and “obvious” but today most of us wouldn’t be shocked to see “nearly dead”, “mostly false” or “plainly obvious” on the page; it seems that common use just defies the rules when it comes to these words.
In the case of “unique”, most purists count the word as an absolute adjective – something either is or is not unique; there are not different levels of uniqueness – and would argue that the phrase “very unique” is a crime against language. However, as Professor Pinker has pointed out in his writing about the rules of language, this isn’t the correct way to approach the word unique and its uses and meanings because grammar is not logical.
According to Merriam-Webster: “Unique comes from the Latin word unus (“one”), and its original meanings in English were “being the only one” or “sole” and “having no like or equal” or “unequalled. [sic] These meanings are about as absolute as they can be, and are seldom modified. However, words that are in widespread use have a tendency to take on extended meanings, and unique also came to mean something that was unusual or rare, as in “a unique opportunity” or “a unique feature.” The fact is, the original (and most absolute) meaning of unique is the word’s least commonly used meaning today (meaning “sole” or “only,” as in “the unique copy of my manuscript”). But modifying unique when it means “unusual” is common.”
In fact, uniqueness itself requires some kind of qualification: all grains of sand are unique, so they say, but you need to be looking through a microscope to see the differences for yourself. Similarly, every pair of identical twins will end up having have some small point of difference if you look closely enough. So is nothing unique, or is everything unique?
The answer is neither, as Professor Pinker points out: “The concept “unique” is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you. Calling something “quite unique” or “very unique” implies that the item differs from the others in an unusual number of qualities, that it differs from them to an unusual degree, or both.”
Indeed, as a fine example of how language evolves “most unique” made it to the urban dictionary a few years ago as a yearbook superlative – essentially a celebration of an individual described by a deliberately joyful misuse of language.
So we can feel free to go ahead modifying everything we like in terms of adjectives, but within reason. Those who immediately start describing anything as “very unique” will regret it, and good editors will call them out for such laziness because it is a clumsy description and your readers will not thank you for it.