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"More perfect" is presumably bad English (Preamble to the US Constitution notwithstanding), since something is either perfect (and thus can't be improved) or not.

"Less imperfect", however, seems to make sense. It means "having fewer flaws" or "closer to perfection".

The paradox: "more perfect" and "less imperfect" should mean the same thing, no?

The real question: is "perfect" binary or continuous? Or is this a weird case where "perfect" is binary, but "imperfect" is continuous, meaning these words aren't true opposites?

[I tried to work in a joke about English being imperfect, but couldn't find the perfect joke]

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"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. –  Kosmonaut Dec 30 '10 at 20:05
    
I don't get it: the only possible way for "more perfect" and "less imperfect" to be equivalent would be if "perfect" and "imperfect" were equivalent. I mean, it goes [imperfect] < [less imperfect] < [perfect] < [more perfect], doesn't it? –  Marthaª Dec 19 '12 at 2:49

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The paradox: "more perfect" and "less imperfect" should mean the same thing, no?

I wouldn't say that's a paradox. To my intuition, "perfect" denotes the extreme point in a continuum. Everything else in that continuum is thus "imperfect". Therefore, "more perfect" makes no sense to me, as you point out. But "less imperfect" does.

However, I have learnt that "perfect" is used in comparisons in everyday language. I am aware that some reputed dictionaries and linguists are against prescriptive advice, but since this is a Q&A site, I'd rather position myself and give positive advice. Fowler's reads on this matter:

in most circumstances perfect is used as an absolute adjective, but there are somewhat rare occasions when the speaker has in mind a near approach to such a state and a comparative adj. or the adverb very may be appropriately used with it.

In conclusion, I would try to avoid to use "perfect" in a comparison, with the only exceptions of metaphorical or approximate usages of the underlying concept of perfection.

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Thanks! I realized that myself later when I replaces "perfect" with "happy". Does this argument work for "unique"? The number of existing "copies" of something is a natural number between 0 and infinity (a discretum, not a continuum), so could "more unique" mean "closer to having 1 instance"? Of course, that would have the weird consequence that a 1-of-a-kind item would be more unique than an item that no longer exists. –  barrycarter Dec 28 '10 at 21:02
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I think you are trying to push real language through the funnel of logical language too hard. While logicality may be of concern regarding real language, it is by no means alone: there are also tradition, aesthetics, practicality, random but common patterns, and many more. "More unique" is generally depreciated, because "unique" means "that there is only one of", so that "more unique" would mean "that there is only one of, but to a higher degree", which doesn't really make sense. But I am sure there other phrases that do not make sense and are yet accepted. –  Cerberus Dec 29 '10 at 4:23
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I have never bought into the objection to "more unique". Unique does not only mean "only one of". It also means "being without like or equal", "distinctively characteristic", or "unusual". People who insist "more unique" doesn't make sense are getting too hung up on etymology. Etymology is never proof of meaning. "Perfect" also has a number of different meanings, some of which are not binary. –  Kosmonaut Dec 30 '10 at 19:59
    
@Kosmonaut: +1 That's an interesting perspective. Could you give an example of a meaning of "perfect" that is not binary, please? –  CesarGon Jan 2 '11 at 18:49
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This answer is much improved, so I removed my downvote. I still don't agree, but c'est la vie. –  nohat Jan 4 '11 at 21:40

Many of the senses of perfect are comparable, so there is no reason to presume that more perfect is somehow “bad English”. The many examples of that usage, even in very formal writings, such as the U.S. Constitution, should be sufficient proof of that. Frankly, the idea that you could use a “logical” argument to declare some usage “bad English” is in itself fallacious. It is easy to forget that most words have multiple meanings and can be used in more than one way. On a related note, the same is true of unique.

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I think the biggest difference is whether you're emphasizing the positive or the negative. "More perfect" is a positive phrase implying "Good and getting better", whereas "Less Imperfect" is more negative, implying, "Still bad, but not as bad." Perfect is hardly ever used except as hyperbole, so it seems valid to allow for degrees.

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I want to give this answer support, because when normal humans communicate, very seldom does "perfect" really refer to something truly perfect. For that matter, in real life, very little can be truly perfect. So often someone says "oh, yes, that would be perfect!" until you give another alternative, and they say "right, that would be even better!" So how was the first thing perfect? Clearly, in real life, with real people, using real English, there can be such a thing as "more perfect". –  John Y Dec 29 '10 at 3:20
    
I think this answer explains "more perfect" as commonly used: it means nearer to perfection. it doesn't mean better than ultimate perfection, which is a concept that cannot really be reached anyway. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 6 '11 at 15:37

Perfect is a binary condition, and imperfect simply means "not perfect." Therefore the phrase "more perfect" denotes that the difference between perfection and the state in question is smaller (i.e. it has fewer flaws) than the previous state. This logic also applies to the construction "more certain." A condition is certain if it has probability unity of occurring, and uncertain if it does not. A more certain event has probability closer to unity.

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"More perfect", "less unique", "less imperfect"; these words grate on the ear. The trouble is is that if common use of language hijacks words like unique then there is nothing to replace them.

One can argue they aren't necessarily always wrong, but they certainly don't sound good. Just use something else more appropriate. For example, if you really feel like using the description "less imperfect", why not just state that the thing has fewer imperfections (as you've already flirted with)?

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I don't think you should say "less imperfect." It's like saying "I'm less average than you." It's up there with "less unique." Imperfect, average, unique, perfect are all "boolean," or so to say. They are either true or false; yes or no; You can be imperfect, or you can be perfect. You cannot be "less unique" or "more average" either. maybe that helps.... :)

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if you're going to rate down my comment, couldn't you at least give a bit of criticism? Perhaps my answer wasn't great, but I would gain from knowing what's wrong with it. –  kalaracey Dec 30 '10 at 20:45
    
I think the overall sentiment here, and specifically the statement “You cannot be ‘less unique’ or ‘more average’ either” is false or at least misleading. –  nohat Dec 31 '10 at 6:16
    
Ok thanks. That makes sense. :) –  kalaracey Jan 1 '11 at 13:24

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