The Grammarphobia Blog

A justifiable usage

Q: I heard someone on the radio say the goal of the MacArthur Foundation is “to help develop a more just society.” I’m of the opinion that “just” is an absolute adjective and cannot be modified. Before I offer a correction to such an esteemed organization, however, I’d like to check with the word maven herself.

A: An absolute adjective is one (like “dead” or “pregnant” or “unique”) that doesn’t have any degrees. You can’t, for example, be “more dead” or “very pregnant” or “extremely unique.”

The adjective “just,” in the context you cite, means fair, lawful, or morally right, according to modern dictionaries. I’m not absolutely certain it’s an absolute adjective, but let’s assume you’re right.

Sometimes an absolute adjective can legitimately be qualified for rhetorical effect. I think the phrase “a more just society” might be an example of this, similar to the phrase “a more perfect union” in the Preamble to the Constitution.

I believe both phrases (“more just” and “more perfect”) can be effective and can be justified when they refer to a striving further toward justice or perfection, rather than an ideal of justice or perfection. The expressions “closer to just” or “closer to perfect” may be more logical, but they have less rhetorical power.

In a 2006 speech in Philadelphia, former President Bill Clinton spoke of “how smart the Founding Fathers were” to come up with the expression “a more perfect union.”

“They knew we would never be perfect,” he said. “But they knew we could always be more perfect.”

And that just about sums it up!

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