Absolutes refer to words that don’t have gradations—the described concept is either true or false (e.g., dead, fatal, infinite, perfect, pregnant, priceless, unanimous, unique). As a rule, they can’t be modified; but they often are. Here are guidelines.
Speakers and, worse yet, writers sometimes use comparative adverbs (e.g., better, more) or superlative adverbs (e.g., best, most) to modify absolute adjectives. Technically, this is incorrect. Absolutes are “free from restriction or limitation”.
Example: That’s the most unique painting I’ve ever seen.
What makes this wrong is that unique means “existing as the only one or as the sole example”. In other words, “one of a kind”.
Modifying unique using words like most, very, extremely is, therefore, illogical. If it’s one of a kind, it can’t be compared, it can’t be more or less so, or the most or least. And the phrase almost exactly the same thing is equally incorrect. It’s either exactly the same or it’s not.
Other terms that might be viewed as absolutes include: dead, entirely, eternal, fatal, final, finite, identical, immortal, infinite, irrevocable, mortal, never, opposite, overwhelmed, perfect, right, straight. Again, none of these should be modified using a comparative or superlative.
Unfortunately, the clear definition of these words has been weakened by popular usage. The result is, for example, that unique is now commonly used to mean “interesting, uncommon, unusual, remarkable”. Perfect doesn’t mean “beyond improvement” any more, but just “excellent”. And in “I feel very alive this morning”, alive does not mean “not dead”; it means “lively” or “energized”.
Solution 1: Alternatives to using absolutes
A speaker or writer can often find a word that’s not an absolute, but is close in meaning to the description he or she is trying to communicate. So, instead of using the word unique in the above example, the word unusual might be used.
Examples: That’s the most unusual painting I’ve ever seen.
There are any number other words that might be substituted (e.g., distinctive, extraordinary, most expensive, original, peculiar, special, superior, unusual).
Solution 2: Intensifying or weakening absolutes
Some modifiers may be used to intensify an absolute (e.g., a piece of art might be described as truly unique).
Some modifiers may be used to weaken or qualify an absolute (e.g., almost, nearly, practically, virtually). Examples: almost unique might be used to describe something that’s rare. Or, Mary Poppins might be “practically perfect in every way”).
So, what to do?
Many writers choose to avoid modifying absolutes. And while natural languages change and grow with usage, clear and precise expression should be the goal of formal communication. If the meaning of a word gets diluted or fuzzy, the message gets blurry. So, speakers, and especially writers, should carefully choose words that clearly express an idea or thought.
The rule about modifying absolutes still stands—it’s technically wrong. And while vernacular usage may be acceptable for some of these absolutes, dead is still dead—not very dead or deadest. So, even though some of these absolutes get modified in common usage, and have been for some time, it’s probably safer to avoid breaking this rule. If it irritates a listener, an editor or, worse, a reader, it may not be worth the risk.
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