Monday, August 26, 2013

Uniquely, Qualified

One of the kind readers who e-mailed me after my article about the figurative literally appeared in the Washington Post’s Outlook section was complimentary but added that I had misused the word uniquely.

Now, I know the drill on unique. It means one-of-a-kind, and so it’s absolute: More unique and less unique and very unique bring to mind a little bit pregnant. That reality tends to be translated into a copy-editing “rule” along the lines of “Never precede unique with a modifier.”

As with many of the so-called rules that we copy editors love, it’s a good idea to learn the rest of the story. Yes, I am the Paul Harvey of copy editing.

More and less unique are out, all right, but how about truly unique? Or unquestionably unique? In both cases, the adverbs refer not to degrees of uniqueness but rather to whether it is accurate to apply unique at all. Absolutely no problem there. Not all modifiers are literally modifying.

And if unique is one-of-a-kind, why can't one thing that's two- or three-of-a-kind be almost unique or nearly unique or virtually unique? Again, the sanctity of unique is preserved. Such a thing isn't unique at all, but there's nothing wrong with talking about how it approaches uniqueness.

When I was too young to drink malt liquor, Colt 45 was "a completely unique experience." As opposed to partially unique? That sounds dodgier, but an experience can be partially unique, can't it, if four out of five of its elements are one-of-a-kind?

I would even be open to look the other way at preceding unique with those Upper-Class Twit of the Year hmph-modifiers that don’t really mean anything: most unique, quite unique. Maybe. It might depend on my mood at the time.

So, with all this in mind, I went back and looked at what I had written about literally. Had I slipped? Did I miss an editor’s misguided insertion? Here’s what I saw:
However persuasive the historical and linguistic justifications, there’s something uniquely absurd about using the one word that most clearly means “I am not making this up” when you are, in fact, making something up.
That seems straightforward enough: I’m asserting that the figurative literally occupies a unique place in the language. I could be wrong about literally, but I am using unique correctly.

I wondered, then, whether the reader’s observation was an example of the “impact” effect, to use a term I just made up. In an extreme version of ignoring my Paul Harvey caution, some people, many of them copy editors, decide that any word with any disputed senses must be avoided altogether. If it makes sense to avoid the biz-speak-y “The economy impacted sales,” one must also avoid “The economy had an impact on sales”! Perhaps there are those who think that if very unique is bad, unique must always be bad.

That’s literally, if not uniquely wrong-headed.

Remember: There’s usually the rest of the story. Good-day?