Why “More Unique” Makes Perfect Sense

Argledy-Bargledy. I was doing so well with blogging more frequently! But then I got busy. I fully intend to return to my series on Better Arguing as well as the several other things I have planned (including a discussion of circumcision, an exegesis on a Torah portion and a Rationalist Manifesto on guns and gun control among them), but in the meantime, here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

People use the phrases “more unique” and “very unique” all the time, and the grammarians, traditionalists and precision-fetishists all hate it. Unique is a binary descriptor, they cry, denoting a singular nature, unparalleled, different than anything else. How could anything possibly be more or very unique? Those who use the phrases tend to rebut that language is what it’s users make of it and that the meddlers should butt out. But I happen to find mathematics far more interesting than ye olde prescriptivist vs descriptivist debate, so I prefer to tackle the question that way.

Let us imagine a line, like a number line, for some property of objects. Maybe its color, or size, or frequency on earth, or price or chance of being ejected from a cockpit. Points on the line correspond to a value of that property, even if the property isn’t a continuous one like size. Now let’s say we have as many lines as properties, and we can graph things by going to the point on each line where their property matches up. We get tons of points, some of which are in clusters, because they are similar in some way, like apples would congregate around an area in this n-dimensional graph that had a certain number for redness and crunchiness and edibleness.

When someone says that something’s unique, the weakest formulation of that idea is that the object or thing in question has a dot where no other dot is. But that’s boring, because my iPhone is different that everyone else’s at least slightly, but it’s not unique in a meaningful sense. So the word unique already corresponds to something that’s not really a binary, because some things are meaningfully unique (maybe “more unique”?) and others are not, even if they are both unique. Mostly, when people say that something’s unique, they mean it’s far away from the cluster where it would normally be found, usually on markers of goodness or excellence.

Of course, far away is one of those pesky continuous sort of things. Something can be more further away or less further away, if I am allowed to destroy the English language further that way. Thus we have that the further something is away from the cluster where we expect it, the more unique it is. And so “more unique” makes perfect sense after all.

Math: 1
Prescriptivists: 0

7 thoughts on “Why “More Unique” Makes Perfect Sense

  1. God says:

    Totally agree with you. If y’all want more on the prescript/descript debate or however you call it, check out the difference b/w I-language and E-language. (Hint: We have I-language, not E-language..)

  2. Jonathan says:

    I disagree. The word “unique” usually refers to peerlessness with respect to one quality. So Quebec is a uniquely French-speaking province, and a banana an almost uniquely yellow fruit. If you want to say that something is extraordinary, though, call it “extraordinary.”
    This distinction is useful because uniqueness is a concept worth distinguishing linguistically from dissimilarity with respect to many qualities.

    • Chana says:

      And yet you contradict yourself with the use of the adverbial phrase “almost uniquely.” What could that possibly mean, in your framework?

      • Jonathan says:

        “Almost uniquely” means that there are maybe one or two other objects that share the one quality in question. So avocadoes are not unique with respect to being a fruit, almost unique with respect to their creaminess, and unique as the only fruit I use in salads. You couldn’t, by contrast, call something “extremely unique”, because one something’s unique it’s unique. Nor could you call one thing more unique than another, because if we’re only dealing with one quality rather than several, each object either has that quality or doesn’t.
        Let me know if you’re still unclear as to what I’m saying.

        And Paul, I agree with you. People definitely use “unique” in a colloquial sense to mean merely “unusual.” That’s the sense that Chana was talking about, and her analysis of that use was appropriate and correct. I’m just making the point that there’s another use of the word that doesn’t fit the model presented here which is the understanding of “unique” that’s defended by the so-called prescriptivists.

        • Chana says:

          Jonathan, I think Paul’s comment below is the best response to your point. “Uniquely” specifies the characteristic and the reference class, allowing a more precise usage, whereas “unique” leaves us guessing, forcing us to understand it only in reference to the object in question’s normal cluster.

          Which I suppose means that you are correct about ‘uniquely’ and not ‘unique.’

          • Jonathan says:

            Okay, that’s a useful distinction. But I think that sometimes “unique” can have the adverbial connotation, too, in the use “unique with respect to X”.

    • Paul says:

      Also you are only talking about ‘uniquely’ the adverb. That usually does only talk about one quality – the adjective it is modifying. That ignores the more common use of unique as an adjective. If a noun is described as unique, it could be with respect to any number of qualities.

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