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Here is an excerpt from the textbook High School English Grammar & Composition, by Wren & Martin (2005 edition by S. Chand, New Delhi):

Certain adjectives do not really admit of comparison because their meaning is already superlative; as,

Unique, Ideal, Perfect, Complete, Universal, Entire, Extreme, Chief, Square, Round

Do not therefore say:

Most Unique, quite unique, chiefest, extremest

But we still say, for instance:

This is the most perfect specimen I have seen.

My questions:

  1. Isn't the last example contradicting (by using most perfect) what they described above? What are they trying to imply here? What should I take away from it?

  2. I have heard the expression 'quite unique' at-least in informal English. Is it incorrect in formal English?

  3. I have seen the words 'squarer', 'squarest' and 'rounder', 'roundest' in the dictionary. So what's wrong with using them?

    Suppose a child tries to draw a circle and it doesn't turn out to be a perfect circle, so they make another attempt and the circle they draw this time is better than the one they drew before; so you tell them that this one is rounder.

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    "Rounder" and "squarer" are certainly valid words, and perfectly meaningful in the proper context. In general, the excerpt is prescriptivist nonsense -- theoretical minutiae that, at most, applies only to formal texts. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 1:35
  • @HotLicks Yeah actually I am preparing for a test, and I need to understand the correct usage (and about common errors) of parts of speech in formal English. – Solace Mar 3 '16 at 2:18
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    The P-ists claim that you cannot take at term such as "square" or "unique" or "perfect", which presumably indicates an extreme already, and then apply terms such as "more" or "quite" to it (or append something like "-er"), to indicate an even more extreme (sic) situation. Of course, they regard Thomas Jefferson as a hack who could barely speak the language. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 3:40
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If we take square as the example, if it has four equal-length sides and 90 degree corners, it is a square. If it doesn't have those, it isn't a square, so there is nothing between the states of square/not square to be graded. Similary, something is either round or it isn't round, perfect or imperfect, unique or not unique, etc.

The confusion arises because in normal, informal usage comparatives like squarer or rounder are used in the sense of "closer to being square/round" simply because it is by far the easiest way to describe that situation.

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    But the machinists and physicists among us will tell you that, in the real world, there is no such thing as a perfect circle. Therefore, by your rules, you cannot say that that triangle "button" to the left is inside a "circle", but you must say it's inside an "irregular ovoid shape" or some such. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '16 at 18:15
  • Do yo think that those same machinists and physicists, with all their ovoids, know what a circle is? If they do, it doesn't really matter whether they can draw one or not. – Roaring Fish Mar 4 '16 at 2:07
  • You're saying that there's no such thing as a circle -- it can't exist. – Hot Licks Mar 4 '16 at 2:09
  • I am asking you why it matters whether it exists or not. – Roaring Fish Mar 4 '16 at 2:11
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    Why do I need to see one? The universe is full of things that I have never seen, but I still know what they are. Words describe ideas, not 'things', and I do actually know what the idea of a circle is. It is "a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the centre)." A dictionary can tell me that, so there is no need to see one. – Roaring Fish Mar 4 '16 at 3:07
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Language theorists, long after languages are formed, attempt to invent rules for how the languages can be used.

Many millennia back, Orc, the guy who invented language in the first place, was teaching the first language class. He took a stick and drew a figure in the dust, pointed to it, and said "rog". Then he drew another figure, pointed to it and said "skar". Since geometry would not be invented for another 6 thousand years, the figures likely were not certifiably "round" and "square", even though those two words derived from his lecture.

But now certain language theorists tell us that something is not "round" unless it is "perfectly" round, and hence something cannot be "more round" than something else. Likewise, even though the US Constitution says otherwise, nothing, not even a union of states, can be "more perfect".

There is some merit to this rigidly structured view of language, in that noticing when language appears to be being used "illogically" helps one learn to write better and more clearly. Being aware of the rules is quite useful. (For this reason it especially makes sense to introduce ESL students to this view, since it serves as a "balance" to the effort to rapidly absorb idiomatic speech.) But adhering rigidly to such rules often flies in the face of common sense, and can be quite stifling of expressive speech and writing.

It suffices to say that one should use care when using a term such as "most unique", to be sure that one has not been carried overboard by the overuse of superlatives. And such terms as "chiefest" and "extremest" are ill-advised simply because those superlative forms are not idiomatic.

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    You are the bestest answerer. – Dewi Morgan Mar 3 '16 at 22:21
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I have always believed that “more perfect’ means “closer to perfection” and is thus actually less than perfect.

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    Right—the famous instance "a more perfect union" surely means "a more [nearly] perfect union." – Sven Yargs Dec 29 '18 at 3:25

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