The Grammarphobia Blog

Perfect pitch

Q: Can you address the use of the word “perfect”? It makes me cringe when people say “MORE perfect.” Is this correct? As I understand it, something is either perfect or it’s not.

A: “Perfect” is one of several adjectives that some usage writers call “absolute” – that is, adjectives that shouldn’t be used in the comparative (“more perfect”), the superlative (“most perfect”), or with other qualifiers (“really perfect”).

Other adjectives that are sometimes described as absolute include “unique,” “correct,” “complete,” “pregnant,” and “dead.”

In a broad sense, I agree with these usage writers. For instance, I wrote a blog entry a couple of years ago about the incessant use of qualifiers with the word “unique.”

At the same time, I think it’s legitimate to use qualifiers in some cases. Perhaps you mean that X has more of the qualities that make up perfection (or uniqueness or completeness) than Y. In other words, X comes closer to the absolute than Y.

You aren’t saying that X is perfect (or unique or complete) in itself, just that it comes closer than Y. So you say that X is “more unique” or whatever.

I think this is what the Founders had in mind when they used the phrase “a more perfect Union” in the Preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I wrote a blog item about this earlier in the year. The conclusion? A qualified endorsement. The Founders were justified in using “more perfect.” But that doesn’t mean we should overdo this usage. Absolutely not!

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