(edited) For example, I've heard people on this site use the word "perfect" like a "perfect" effort given the resources, etc. Isn't that a wrong (socially unacceptable) way to use the word?

So I'm assuming "perfect" can be used subjectively (and it is fairly common in the English speaking world), but should it be used conditionally?

Some examples of "perfect" being used conditionally (is it socially acceptable usage?):

  1. I made a perfect score with all the knowledge that I had even though there were several questions I didn't know the answer to.

  2. Given our supplies, which were scarce, we made a perfect siege of the castle. Had we had more cannonballs, we could have broken through the walls faster.

  3. We bargained perfectly for the leather jacket considering we were not fluent in the language.

  • It's impossible for perfection to not be relative. Even between individuals, the idea of perfection is subjective. One person's perfect pizza can bear little resemblance to another person's perfect pizza. If the concept of relativism weren't included, nobody would be able to agree on the use of the word in normal discourse. This sounds more like something that should belong more at Philosophy than here. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 23:50
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    Not entirely true. A perfect score on a test is 100. Also, I think it's fine to use "perfect" subjectively as long as the attempt is there. But is it ok to use the word "perfect" in this situation: if there was a war and we made a perfect siege of a fortress given our resources? "Perfect" there would not only be subjective, but also conditional. I don't see the conditions for that in the dictionary? Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 23:59
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    His score was perfect. And the lunch with Julia made it even more perfect. He was a lucky man and he knew it.
    – user205876
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 3:09
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    Possible duplicate of Are the rules regarding absolute modifiers too absolute? Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 18:54
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    @YukangJiang I can't recall ever having heard the "conditional" usage of perfect you're asking about. To clarify, my remark about "perfect" and narrow scope wasn't meant to imply that the other examples you gave are normal usage. I was merely struck by the fact that "perfect siege" sounded strange to me and was speculating about the reason.
    – Al Maki
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 3:46

2 Answers 2


Twentieth century grammars and style guides — and a few recent ones — insist that an absolute adjective cannot be compared: something is either perfect, square, or complete or it isn’t. But there is a workaround:

Use the expressions: more nearly perfect, more nearly square, more nearly true, and unique. (Since unique means only one of its kind, it is clear that one does not say more nearly unique.) — Sophie C. Hadida, Pitfalls in English and How to Avoid Them, 1927, 127.

And use them they did:

We, therefore, in order to achieve a more nearly perfect industrial cooperation, in order to give more nearly perfect protection to the human beings engaged in the business of production, and in order to render to the general public a more nearly perfect service, do associate ourselves together and enact the following constitution. — Constitution of the American Guild of the Printing Industry, 1922.

This increase may reflect more nearly complete registration of nonwhite births and also more nearly complete and accurate recording of birth weight for nonwhite infants. Tennessee Vital Statistics, 1961, 9.

The more nearly square the house, the less wall area there is in proportion to the floor area. — Hajime Ota, Houses and Equipment for Laying Hens, 1967, 16.

Some writing guides are still recommending this construction with absolute adjectives:

Some examples are immaculate, perfect, square, round, complete, excellent, and unique. When you use those words in sentences, use them alone or precede them with the terms more nearly or most nearly. For example: Irene's suggestion is the most nearly perfect one of all of them. Your yard is more nearly square than mine. — Thomas L. Means, English and Communication for Colleges, 2006.

But, as a Google Books query shows, such advice is bucking a trend:

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Almost flatlined until 1840 — which is why the US Constitution is happy with “a more perfect Union” but not the printers’ guild — this usage peaks around 1940 with a steep decline thereafter.

There are still contexts, however, where such logical precision is not out of place:

If we take a shorter time than a second this will be more nearly true, approaching the limit of complete truth as the period of time is indefinitely diminished. — Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits, 1948, 200.

Insofar as a statement approaches perfection, insofar as the system approaches completeness, our statements become more nearly true. A statement will be more nearly complete to the extent that its opposite is inconceivable. — Frank Northen Magill, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form, 1961.

What is nearly true when the unit is small and more and more nearly true as the unit grows smaller is said to be “true in the limit, as the unit decreases.” — Philip Henry Wicksteed, The Alphabet of Economic Science, 1955, 42.

Now these rules always have had more formal written English in mind, which makes Means’ examples so curious. Imagine Irene’s reaction to her most nearly perfect idea or the neighbor at his more nearly square yard. Even at the peak of this construction, I can’t imagine someone commenting on how a lime is more nearly round than a lemon. At least the grammar guides don’t insist on “more nearly spherical.”

  • If there are 2 extant examples of A and 3 of B, A is more nearly unique. / 'Fuller' (the comparative of 'full') has been around for a long time. Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 18:50
  • @EdwinAshworth: I don't think full has ever been considered absolute. There’s a full glass and one that’s filled to the brim. An hour after a big meal, you feel less full than when you left the table. The notion that unique should never be compared was new to me.
    – KarlG
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 20:53
  • I'd never use 'more unique', but 'more nearly perfect / unique / full / complete ...' have their place. Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 13:48

On Sense and Nonsense: A Perfect Storm

The answer to your question is that people can use words howsoever it pleases them to do so. No dictionary “defines” what people “can” say. That notion will find no purchase here. It simply isn’t what a dictionary is. Instead that’s some sort of law or regulation, like a Scrabble rulebook.

You said “all but two” of your mentioned site’s senses, but it’s impossible to know which 2 of its paltry 17 senses you were thinking of. Which ones?

Far more importantly, “www.dictionary.com” is hardly dispositive. The historical dictionary of record for the English language is the Oxford English Dictionary. Accept no substitutes.

Just for perfect in its noun, adjective, and adverb uses, which it bundles under a single headword, the OED attests 70 senses comprising 46 main senses and 24 subentry senses for which it provides 419 quotations dating from the very end of the 13th century up through and including our own 21st. That doesn’t even account for the verb perfect or for the interjection perfect, which are each under their own headword.

Many of the OED’s 70 senses make perfect sense when describing such matters as perfect efforts. Here are just the first few:

A. adj.

I. General uses.

  1. a. spec. Of, marked, or characterized by supreme moral or spiritual excellence or virtue; righteous, holy; immaculate; spiritually pure or blameless.

    b. gen. In a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon; flawless, faultless. Also occasionally: nearly approaching such a state.

    c. Of a day: of which every part is enjoyable; (also) having fine and balmy weather. Phrase the (perfect) end of (or to) a perfect day.

  2. a. Having all the essential characteristics, elements, or qualities; not deficient in any particular; complete, full; total; (of an emotion) unstinted, unreserved. Frequently and now chiefly used of abstract things, as love, calm, etc.


  1. Completely corresponding to a definition, pattern, or description.

    a. Of a specified type of person, as a courtier, wife, friend, etc.: complete, thorough; that may serve as a specimen or type; exemplary. Frequently in perfect gentleman, perfect lady.

    b. [...]

    c. Chiefly colloquial. Unmitigated, utter; sheer; absolute; veritable. Chiefly in expressions of approval or disparagement.


    • 1961 L. R. Parks & F. S. Leighton My Thirty Years backstairs at White House xiii. 190
      Rob Roy was a perfect angel with the First Family.
    • 2002 W. Storandt Summer they Came iii. 34
      The house was a perfect jewel box of a gambrel-roofed cottage.

There are many, many, many more where those came from. But it doesn’t matter as far as the answer to your question goes, because whether or not a sense happens to have been documented has nothing whatsoever to do with whether people can use that sense. Just as words don’t have to appear in a dictionary to be words, so too with senses.

But that isn’t what’s happening here. As the OED indeed documents, clearly this is one of the many, many, many ways that native speakers use the word perfect. Since the existence proof suffices to show that they do, the question of can becomes immaterial; the only real “rule” is that they can do whatever they fancy. Your job is to understand them, not to question their right to do so.

On Grades and Gradability: A More Perfect Union

You seem to take umbrage at gradability and comparison of perfect things, but I cannot imagine why. After all, who can forget these famous words?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

  • a really good answer till the last part, many people would have no reason or interest to read this never mind remember it. After all is was written by a group of former insurgents.
    – Brad
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 3:59
  • @tchrist In regards to your statement that "people can use words howsoever it pleases them to do so," some linguists say that "irregardless" isn't a word even though a lot of people use it. It seems that using "perfect" subjectively can be correct usage, but are conditional statements of "perfect" correct usage? Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 16:41
  • @YukangJiang No linguist has ever said that irregardless "isn't a word", whatever that means, because that simply isn't something that linguists do. You may be thinking of various flavors of educator or editor or writing style guidelines about acceptable uses and normative "standards" setting forth great lists of things they disapprove of. I'm not saying such things have no usefulness in their own domains; they certainly do, or at least can.But those are utterly unrelated to linguists and linguistics, which is something else altogether.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 16:56
  • @YukangJiang As for whether it is "correct" usage, could you please explain what "correct" means in that context? "Correct" is something that grade school teachers and newspaper editors and traffic cops and anybody else who enjoys telling people what they can and cannot do are much quicker to answer than linguists are. Clearly people do this, which is all linguists care about. It isn't their job to reprimand you based on their own personal likes and dislikes.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 17:03
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    Yes; OED is dispositiver. Though not pluperfect. Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 18:43

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