How Unique Is “Unique”?

Can you compare or modify a word like “unique”?

It was brought to my attention recently that a teacher using our site disagreed with the use of “the most unique” within one of our lessons. This led me to do a bit of research regarding this “unique” dilemma.

What do the style guides think?

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) agrees with our subscriber. It states the following:

An adjective that, by definition, describes an absolute state or condition is called incomparable. It cannot take a comparative suffix and cannot be coupled with the comparative terms more, most, less, or least. Nor can it be intensified by words like very, largely, or quite” (2010, 226).

On the other hand, the Copyeditor’s Handbook argues that it depends on how you interpret the meaning. It explains this difference in the following way:

There are also disputes about whether certain adjectives and adverbs are absolute (that is, they cannot be used in the comparative or the superlative and cannot be modified by the intensifier very). As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, each generation of usage experts proposes its list based on its notions of semantics and logic…Unique also means ‘distinctive’ or ‘unusual,’ and these meanings certainly admit comparison and intensification” (Einsohn 2011, 370-1).

Both the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary agree that “unique” has two meanings:

1) only one (and therefore can’t be modified or compared)
2) unusual (and therefore can be modified or compared)

So does it all depend on how you interpret the meaning of “unique”?

What do others think?

I recently came across two examples where “unique” had been modified. I saw a post on my Facebook newsfeed from SfEP (the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK), who posted an article from entitled “Incredibly Unique Bookmobiles around the World.” Also, when I was watching American Idol (my guilty pleasure) on April 25, I heard Jimmy Iovine say that the way Freddy Mercury used to sing was “so, so unique.” Like it or not, modifying and comparing absolute adjectives like “unique” seems to be commonplace.

What do I think?

Personally, I don’t have a problem with using “very unique” or “more/most unique.” For example, I would be fine with the following sentence:

Gotye and Kimbra are two artists with very unique singing styles, but I think that Gotye’s style is more unique than Kimbra’s.

I fall into the category of people who use “unique” to mean “unusual,” so I don’t see anything wrong with emphasizing “unique” or using it comparatively or superlatively. But since I follow the Chicago Manual of Style when editing for ESL-Library, I do feel a bit at odds with this situation.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Would you have a problem using “very unique,” “more unique,” or “the most unique”? Or, if it’s your first time considering this dilly of a pickle, what do you think now?

May your days be filled with rainbows and unique-orns,


Tanya Trusler loves helping others improve their communication. She spent over 10 years teaching ESL to students of all ages, levels, and nationalities. She has recently made the switch to editing, and is now a freelance editor in Vancouver, BC. She joined the ESL-Library team in January 2012, and is happily putting her teaching and editing skills to good use. Find her on Twitter, @PixieT12.

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    Brentney says:

    Jun 12, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Wow! I’d love to use this in my college-level ecoiatdun class for students training to work with ELLs. It speaks to not only the environment of the school but the deeper issues of acceptance, appreciation, and viewing ELLs from a strengths-based perspective instead of a deficit view (focusing on what they can’t do instead of what they can and the resources they bring to the class).


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