[An updated post about “unique” appeared on Oct. 20, 2017.]
Q: I have increasingly been hearing phrases like “very unique” and “most unique.” I had thought that such expressions were used mostly by illiterates, but last week I heard them on a news commentary on the BBC. What is the status of the qualified “unique”?
A: There is no legitimate qualification for “unique.” If something is unique, it’s one of a kind. There are no degrees of uniqueness. As I say in my grammar book, Woe Is I, “Nothing can be more, less, sort of, rather, quite, very, slightly, or particularly unique. The word stands alone, like dead, unanimous, and pregnant.” So if you hear someone qualify it, that’s a misuse. The reason this particular misuse is such a shame is that “unique” is unique! Using a modifier with it muddies the meaning, and there’s no synonym that’s as good.