Less is More When it Comes to “Unique”

By Maeve Maddox

The word unique is related to a whole class of words derived from the Latin word for one, (unus) for example: uniform, unilateral, and unicorn.

Soldiers tend to look alike when they are in uniform.
Among allied states, a unilateral action is one taken by one member or “side” only. (Latin latus = side)
A unicorn has one horn. (Latin cornus = horn of an animal)

The word unique has the meaning “one of a kind.” It is a useful word and the widespread misuse of it tends to dissipate its usefulness.

Listen to any talk show and you will hear people say that something or other is “very unique,” or “rather unique,” or “somewhat unique.”

Such usage corresponds to saying that a woman is “somewhat pregnant.”

With unique (as with pregnancy) there is no middle ground.

If something is unique, that’s it. To precede the word with an intensifier like “very” or a comparative like “less” or “more,” defeats the purpose.

That is not to say that one mustn’t ever use a word to modify unique.

One CAN say that a thing is:

  • nearly unique
  • really unique
  • perhaps unique
  • in some respects unique

but never ever “very unique.”

TIP: Preserve the unique usefulness of the word unique by thinking twice before putting a modifier in front of it.

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17 Responses to “Less is More When it Comes to “Unique””

  • Daniel

    Spot on, I hear “rather unique” quite often.

  • Shankar Ganesh

    Hey guys!
    Here’s a request from me:
    Please add a ‘print’ feature over here.. so that I can have an offline copy of my favourite articles.

  • Ray

    Whilst I agree with your main point, some of your exceptions make no sense. ‘Quite unique’ and ‘absolutely unique’ for instance are as redundant as ‘very unique’. THe thing is either unique or it isn’t.

  • Daniel

    Ray, good point and I agree. I removed some of the exceptions, but I will get in touch with Maeve to know what she meant in the first place.

  • Maeve

    In my heart of hearts, I tend to agree with Ray. I have to admit to bowing to one of my authorities here (H.W. Fowler Modern English Usage):
    “the adverbs that unique can tolerate are e.g. quite, almost, nearly, really, surely, perhaps, absolutely, or in some respects.”

    I often disagree with Fowler, especially in some of his misogynistic pronouncements, and I probably should have on “quite” and “absolutely.”

  • LearningNerd

    I’d like to point out that there’s a huge difference between telling someone “You’re unique” and “You’re very unique.” The first is more like something parents would tell their kid. The second is something a kid would tell another kid, using a sarcastic tone to mean “You’re strange”.

    Or at least that’s my experience. I know you can also say “You’re unique” in a sarcastic tone to mean the same thing, but I never hear people say that. It’s always “very unique”.

    Maybe it’s a regional thing? I’d love to know if anyone else is familiar with that usage.

  • Zach Everson

    Your advise can apply to almost any word. Modifiers such as really, rather, and very add no meaning shouldn’t be used.

    Also, many writers use “unique” when they mean “unusual.”

  • Daniel

    Zach, yeah I also feel that sometimes the writer is trying to say “unusual.”

    Also, you probably meant “your advice,” right?

    Sorry for being pedantic, but it’s the proper blog to do so 🙂 .

  • Maeve

    LearningNerd,
    The use of “very unique” that you describe may be common, but it’s not what I’d call a regionalism.

    It is perhaps the deliberate use of an incorrect phrase for the sake of irony, like “déja-vu all over again.” Such usage probably belongs to the realm of slang.

  • Lefa Singleton Norton

    This is my pet peeve. We are becoming so accustomed to having an incorrect phrase shoved at us by lazy media and/or conversations that we start to accept the incorrect version. Those of us who attempt to correct people are, of course, pedants.

  • nova

    God ! have I been mistaken all that time ?!

    I say:”That’s so unique” all that time.

    It’s really great to learn stuff like that!

    Thank you

  • Rob Poole

    I was actually perusing comments in another thread on this site (a discussion of “because of” vs. “due to”) and noticed that someone was gently reproved for the use of the intensifier “very” before “unique.” While I understand the concept of uniqueness, I have never considered it as absolute as some of the rigorous grammarians here do.

    Before anyone flagellates me, let me just add that I’m probably just as OCD as many of the other folks commenting here, if not moreso. It’s just that I come from a different background.

    Specifically, my background is in mathematics and the physical sciences. Just because something is unique doesn’t necessarily mean that what makes that thing unique is in any way noteworthy. For example, suppose we have two ingots of some rare metal which have the same mass and every other characteristic that we might care about, but one has a different identifier engraved on it from the other. The thing that makes these ingots unique, then, is an identifier — this is a trivial difference, and for our purposes makes no real difference whatsoever. It doesn’t have to be engraving; the difference could just as easily be geometric (e.g., one ingot is a rectangular solid, while the other is a cylinder).

    In cases like this, it’s not uncommon to say that these objects are trivially unique (some state variable is different, but it’s one that won’t affect measurements we care about). You can only say that the ingots are not unique if you completely ignore all gross physical traits.

    By analogy, then, if there’s a trivial form of uniqueness, there should be a “strong” form of uniqueness. I’ve seen the intensifier “very” applied in situations where a sample or a result really did stand out from the crowd, and not in just a trivial or inconsequential manner. I’ll concede that in more formal writing, the same students and researchers might prefer the term “singular” or “statistically significant” since the term “unique” gets overloaded quite a bit.

    I suppose the point I’m trying to make in all this is that there’s unique, and then there’s unique, and it’s all relative to the manner (kind) and degree of that uniqueness. While every snowflake might be unique, no one snowflake is really any more special than any other, whereas in a population of animals with random mutations, the one animal that has a beneficial mutation which confers a reproductive advantage could be considered truly special.

    Maybe in my previous paragraph, “very unique” would still rankle purists out there. But if there’s a notion of trivial uniqueness, shouldn’t there be a stronger, more intense version of uniqueness to indicate “unique in a way that I actually care about (and you should too)”?

  • Bruce

    Wow – very unique article!

  • jc

    Thank you Rob Poole!

  • Jeff

    OK, so I’m 5+ years late to the party, but here’s my 30-second take. Most people don’t care that you, your business, your invention, your ideas, etc. are “unique”. They want to know how or why you’re better and how it can benefit them.

    Rather than using the word “unique”, focus on what truly sets you, your ideas, or your business apart and how that will create value (or will otherwise matter to) the individual or group with whom you’re meeting (or to whom you’re presenting). They’ll appreciate that you took the time to focus on what matters to them, rather than the fact that you’re “unique” (like everybody else).

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