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Uncomparable adjectives

Uncomparable adjectives describe absolute states or conditions. Modifiers like more and less do not apply to them, and they don’t have comparative and superlative forms. Here are some of the most common uncomparable adjectives:

  • absolute
  • adequate
  • chief
  • complete
  • devoid
  • entire
  • false
  • fatal
  • favorite
  • final
  • fundamental
  • ideal
  • impossible
  • inevitable
  • infinite
  • irrevocable
  • main
  • manifest
  • meaningless
  • only
  • paramount
  • perfect
  • perpetual
  • possible
  • preferable
  • pregnant
  • primary
  • principal
  • singular
  • stationary
  • sufficient
  • unanimous
  • unavoidable
  • unbroken
  • uniform
  • unique
  • universal
  • void
  • whole
  • worthless

These uncomparable adjectives can’t take the -er and –est forms that comparable adjectives take. But while it’s logically questionable to apply intensifying modifiers such as very, quite, and most to uncomparable adjectives, writers do it quite frequently—for example:

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The look and feel of the room is quite unique. [Summit Daily News]

The major problem with these types of frauds is that they are largely impossible to prosecute. [Hanna Herald]

Of all the physical and artistic exercises in the world, dance is the most universal.  [Homer News]

That’s not to say the Warriors’ evening was totally devoid of life. [San Jose Mercury News]

The illogic of these constructions is obvious; a room can’t be merely somewhat unique, prosecuting frauds can’t be partially impossible, one art form can’t be less universal than another, and an evening can’t be only partially devoid of life. Still, sometimes these phrases just feel right, so such constructions will always be part of the language.

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Comments

  1. For the impossible, they may mean that in most of these types of cases it is impossible, with few exceptions.
    For the universal, they may mean that the exercise that is closest to being universal is dance.
    I have seen parties that are devoid of life (figuratively) and lunar landscapes that are devoid of life (literally). Someone should call the coroner’s office for the poor Warriors.
    For the unique, I would have a hard time justifying “quite unique”, unless you wish to say that everything is in some way unique, and this was “notably unique”, to allow some emphasis to be added for a fairly overused word.
    It is often hard to be both concise and stylistically correct.

  2. Chris Johnston says:

    Unique is often used to describe things that have unique attributes. Something might have more or fewer attributes that are unique. Could that something then not be considered more or less unique, based on the number of its unique attributes? For example, could a single red triangle among a collection of green and yellow squares and circles could be considered more unique than a single yellow triangle in the same group? Or even muddier, what if all the circles are yellow, but the squares are green and yellow, except for one green circle. That green circle is still unique, but compared to a red triangle? I think it’s debatable, at least.

    • Your argument on the subject is unique (I like it)! I agree that it’s at least debatable.

      In theory, the above words are absolute in their meaning — something is either unique or it’s not unique, something is either possible or it’s not possible, something is either sufficient or it’s not sufficient. In practice, however, some of these words are nuanced with emotional and qualitative aspects in addition to the quantitative (1 or 0). In other words, some things that we call “unique” impress us more or less — possibly because of the large “number of unique attributes” (as you describe above), or because they strike us in a more emotional way. One thing feels unique, and another thing *really* feels unique.

      So all of the words in the above list don’t necessarily describe “absolute states or conditions.”

      I tend not to use the terms “quite unique” or “very possible” (I might instead write, “quite rare” or “very likely”). But in my opinion, there’s nothing inherently incorrect when someone does modify these words in that way. Adding the word “very” to the word “unique” is a way that people try to attach greater significance to it. It may be an overused phrase, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily incorrect. This seems like one area where the scholars are both overthinking it and under-thinking it.

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