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.