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A common grammar lesson that was taught to me in the US and that I've had to teach abroad in EFL classrooms is that we're not to use adverbs of emphasis with absolute modifiers, just as we're not supposed to use them as comparatives or superlatives.

Classic egregious examples of this mistake include very unique and more perfect, which seem obviously flawed to me. Other instances of further modified absolute modifiers are similarly meaningless or contradictory in nature.

I wonder, though, if the rule that I learned isn't overly broad, and whether it's taught similarly in the UK and elsewhere. I find myself modifying absolute modifiers quite regularly, and in some circumstances I think it's not only logical and correct, but quite meaningful. Phrases like almost exactly or virtually all or practically infinite possess a specific meaning that can't really be replicated using nonabsolutes like very nearly or most or quite long.

In my own speech and writing, I use such phrases exactly as I see fit, so this isn't a request for permission, per se. I'm more curious about whether there's a more appropriate rule regarding absolutes that you rely on (and might be used in a classroom).

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Quoting a fellow mod and a linguist, "'Perfect' has many meanings, including 'proficient', 'lacking in no essential detail', 'of an extreme kind', 'corresponding to an ideal standard'. These meanings don't strike me as unable to have comparatives. Other meanings of perfect are binary." –  RegDwigнt Oct 9 '11 at 2:07
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"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union..." If it's good enough for the Constitution, it's good enough for me. –  alcas Dec 30 '11 at 22:01

6 Answers 6

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What you are doing in the examples very unique, more perfect is using an adverb to intensify a strong adjective; it seems a fairly good rule of thumb that this is often stylistically inadvisable. There is a certain inflation of the intensity of the adjectives, and the adverbs can be accused of pleonasm (as in "a triangular triangle"). This rule is often referred to on both sides of the Atlantic, and in many other languages too.

However, your other examples do more or less the opposite: you use adverbs to weaken (or qualify) the adjective in almost exactly, virtually all, and practically infinite. That is quite different: there is no inflation of the intensity of the adjectives themselves, nor are adverbs pleonastic.

Other concerns may arise, though, in the case of absolutes and classifications (I like Fumblefingers' categories). Sometimes it is not very satisfying to qualify the unqualifiable, as in she's a bit pregnant: she's either pregnant or she isn't, so it is probably better to say she looks a bit pregnant, if that's what you mean. I think that's almost exactly the same thing, while perhaps acceptable, is usually not to be preferred over that's almost the same thing: the adjective feels a bit wordy and is made redundant. The examples with all and infinite are what Fumblefingers calls absolutes, which I think should be qualified without qualms, where appropriate.

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+1 for the (new to me) interesting idea that there's a clear-cut distinction between intensifying and weakening adverbs here. Intuitively I feel there's a tendency for intensifiers to be less acceptable than "weakeners" when used with non-gradable adjectives. Not that there's really anything wrong with feeling very alive, IMHO, but I bet there are more people saying things like "This place is a bit dead". –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '11 at 18:09
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I agree. The bacteria are very 100 % dead sounds absurd, whereas they are almost 100 % dead sounds a bit odd but perhaps acceptable. It's just that intensifying something that cannot be any stronger than it already is gives more stylistic problems than otherwise, such as the inflation I mentioned (perfect doesn't mean "100 % good" any more, but just "excellent") or the redundancy. In very alive, the meaning of alive must have changed beforehand to make it acceptable, from not dead to lively; just so, a bit dead means somewhat like dead or something similar. –  Cerberus Oct 9 '11 at 0:02
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I think that very unique is acceptable if the item in question is unique in many different ways. –  TRiG Oct 9 '11 at 1:37
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@Fumble: Haha, I see. Since this book refers to Orwell's "more equal" pigs, I presume you share my opinion of the use of very unique in general, with which Orwell himself would no doubt concur. –  Cerberus Oct 9 '11 at 5:31
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I, too, find that distinction quite helpful (and quite teachable). Thank you for the insight. –  onomatomaniak Oct 9 '11 at 7:11

Not sure exactly what's being asked here. Do English language teachers still tend to warn against using grading adverbs with non-gradable adjectives? Probably, because the reason hasn't changed.

Grading adverbs (e.g. extremely, fairly, rather, very) vary the intensity (grade) of adjectives.

Non-gradable adjectives describe qualities which can't normally be varied because they're extremes (e.g. freezing), absolutes (e.g. dead), or classifications (e.g. nuclear).

But rules are meant to be broken — it would be a sad day for language if we weren't "allowed" to say, for example, "I feel very alive this morning".

TL;DR: Nothing's changed. Learn the basic principles first, then break the "rules" whenever it seems logical/eloquent to do so.

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I forgot to up-vote you. I agree in all respects about learning the rules and then breaking them. –  Cerberus Oct 9 '11 at 5:34
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Yes, certainly, learn the rules first, break them later. This situation just struck me as one in which the modified absolutes that I find meaningful were too numerous to really be "exceptions to the rule." –  onomatomaniak Oct 9 '11 at 7:13

It’s not a rule of grammar, but a matter of lexical choice. The question turns in part on whether the adjective being so modified does indeed represent an absolute value. Unique certainly has its origins in the notion of oneness and there are those who believe any departure from such a notion will lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it. The prophets of doom conveniently ignore, or pehaps have never known, that unique has been susceptible to modification from the early nineteenth century. The same can be said of perfect. In 1623 Bacon wrote:

Those works, which I had formerly published, . . being retractate and made more perfect.

while in in the late eighteenth century Gibbon wrote:

The heir most gratefully subscribed an agreement, which rendered my life-possession more perfect.

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Never mind "more perfect"! Let's go the whole hog and look into most perfect. That was all the rage in the early 1800s, but the grammar nazis and logicians have been chipping away at it ever since. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '11 at 23:50
    
Indeed. The OED has 228 citations that include 'most perfect'. –  Barrie England Oct 9 '11 at 6:33

I don't seem to see any reference to absolute intensifiers here (apart from in the English Club link), so at the risk of repeating a bit, here's how we teach it in EFL (BrE)

With gradable adjectives (happy, tired, surprised etc) the main intensifiers are:

very, really and quite (meaning partly). Later we'll add extremely, terribly etc

With ungradable adjectives (delighted, exhausted, amazed etc) the main modifiers are:

absolutely, really and quite (meaning 100%). Later we'll add totally, completely, utterly etc.

At advanced level we might divide ungradable adjectives into extreme adjectives and absolute adjectives, and show how these intensifiers strongly collocate with certain adjectives:

You're quite right; that's utterly wrong; it's perfectly ridiculous; it's absolutely perfect etc

In fact these are not really modifying the adjectives so much as emphasising them. So what about unique? Well, I'd never say "very unique". Not because of 'the unique squad', but for the same reason I wouldn't say "It's very fabulous", it doesn't sound natural English to me; we don't normally use very with ungradable adjectives. But I might say "totally or absolutely unique". The unique squad probably still wouldn't like it, but at least it would sound natural English.

However, I've just checked in MWDEU, and to my surprise they allow very unique, no less a writer than George Elliot having apparently used it - "A very unique child, thought I". It still sounds unnatural to me, but maybe I'll have to rethink.

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The way George Elliott writes very unique sounds fine to me, yet when I go to an EFL seminar and hear, "Our English teaching methodology is very unique." I cringe. Maybe someone will figure out why one is OK and the other isn't, but in the meantime I'll keep my dictionary handy so I can clobber any student who dares to say very unique in earshot of me. –  Pitarou Feb 9 '12 at 5:11
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Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary gives 3 meanings for 'unique': 1, being the only one of its kind - i.e. the traditional meaning - I think this is where you and I would cringe at 'very'. Their second meaning is: very special or unusual, where they say it's OK to use 'very', 'more' etc. I think this is more the way George Elliot used it. Their third meaning is: belonging to or connected with one particular person, place or thing, where I think we are back to absolutes. –  RandomIdeaEnglish Feb 9 '12 at 21:58
    
@RandomEnglish Ah ... I get it now! 'Absolute' isn't a fixed category. Most 'absolute' adjectives really have a common absolute sense and a less common gradable sense. Thanks! –  Pitarou Feb 10 '12 at 3:09

I choose never to modify "unique." I feel unique means just that—"one of a kind." If something is unique, how can it more or less so? I fully agree that languages must grow and change, and I do not think that using "very unique" threatens Western civilization in any way. However, I admire clear and precise expression. Unique conveys precision. If we modify the word, we muffle the message. Besides, we have plenty of other words that can better serve our intent. A thing may not be unique, but it can be special, distinctive, unusual, extraordinary, superior, original, singular, or peculiar. The writer should choose words that clearly express the idea. To my thinking, "very unique" doesn't say anything clearly.

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You certainly articulate a common position, but you do not address the matter of comparing two entities claiming to be unique. Which one, of the two, could be described as "more unique" without the linguistic freedom to ask the question? –  Michael Owen Sartin Nov 26 '13 at 2:45
    
If two entities are competing for the title of "most unique," I submit that uniqueness may not really be the quality they're shooting for. Again, let's look at other words. One entity may be bigger, stronger, more expensive, more capable, or something else. The biggest problem I have with the word "unique" is that in many cases we use it only because it's the first word that springs to mind. In many instances—but certainly not all—another adjective would more accurately convey the message. –  Lucas Hutton Nov 26 '13 at 14:18
    
quite right, but you can surely weaken it: almost unique etc. –  bobie Aug 18 at 13:12

I think "very unique" or other qualifiers should be acceptable, because I think unique can have levels of intensity, if not by definition then at least semantically. Consider, for example, that compared to any other human on the planet, I am unique. I am also unique compared to an earthworm. It seems natural to say I'm more unique compared to the earthworm than I am to the other human, even though I'm still unique in both cases.

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Not sure the example flies. You are not more unique compared to the earthworm, you are more different. To be unique you have to be part of the set — and you are not a worm. And anyway, what do you mean by "if not by definition then at least semantically"? A word's definition is all about semantics. –  RegDwigнt Jan 16 '13 at 22:01
    
You are no more unique among the set of animals than the set of humans. You might be more obviously unique or more clearly unique, but you are just as unique. (Unless there are two or more of you, in which case you aren't at all). –  Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 22:18
    
@RegDwighт I meant connotatively –  Colin Jan 17 '13 at 5:34

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