November 3, 2014

Steven Pinker "fights pedantry with more pedantry."

"He doesn’t want to concede that the phrase 'very unique' makes no sense (things are either unique or not), so he mounts an odd defense."
Look at two snowflakes from far away, he says, and they no longer seem unique: “The concept ‘unique’ is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying.” If we did all that, we wouldn’t need the word.

103 comments:

madAsHell said...

As a child I used the phrase "more better".

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Heh. I used "more betterer." At least once.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

"Very unique" is a slippery staircase: 22 Very Unique Staircases That Will Inspire You.

Fernandinande said...

Grammar beyond writing for understanding is a status display.

Just ask Mr. Language Person!

Q. What are the mandatorical parts of speech that is required to be in a sentence?

A. To be grammatorically correct, a sentence must have three basic elements: (1) A SUBJECT, which is a noun that can be either a person, place or mineral; (2) A VERB, which is a word that describes an action, such as "kung fu"; and (3) AN OBJECT, which is a noun that weighs two or more pounds. Let's see how these elements combine to form this example sentence, written by Marcel Proust:

"Being late at night, Earl failed to check his undershorts for lipstick stains, which is why he was awokened at 6:30 a.m. by Lurleen whanging him upside his head with a object."

Q. Speaking of Marcel Proust, what can the letters in his name be rearranged to spell?

A. "Rump Locaters."

traditionalguy said...

Grain size describes his brain.

Virgil Hilts said...

Irregardless of what Pinker thinks, I am still reticent to use very unique.

Matthew Sablan said...

That's a very unique argument. Has someone already used that specifically unique joke?

Matthew Sablan said...

:(

A sentence doesn't need an object.

He runs; she runs; the dog runs are all perfectly valid sentences.

Paddy O said...

We can't distinguish degrees of uniqueness? That seems like a strange limitation.

People are all the same then, so what are we all arguing about with stuff in society? Our DNA is almost entirely alike. Nothing unique about anybody. All unique or not unique, that's how things are.

Meanwhile, I want to say, "DON'T LIMIT MY EMBRACE OF COMPLEXITY"

Mike said...

Why the constant need to distort language that serves us so well as is? Unique means "one of a kind" and any modifier is extraneous and superfluous.

Mark Caplan said...

The New Yorker is one of the last holdouts for proper and pleasurable grammatical constructions. You can be confident whoever is writing for The New Yorker knows the difference between lie and lay, of and have, comprised and composed and that "She walked with John and I" is a stomach-turning illiteracy.

Mike said...

That is, a thing cannot be more or less unique. It either is or it isn't one-of-a-kind. Period. Weenies like Pinker seem to be confusing unique with special, and we already know the Elite Media think they are all kinds of special already.

Bob Ellison said...

Mike, some modifiers might be useful. "Strangely unique" could highlight an unexpected uniquity. "Sadly unique" could connote sorrow that there's only one of whatever it is.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Matthew Sablan said...

A sentence doesn't need an object.

No, but a comment reader needs a sense of humor.

Matthew Sablan said...

That's the sort of dangerous thinking that leads to people boldly going places and participles dangling.

traditionalguy said...

Many old languages just repeated the word when they want to say "more" of the same thing. That work works for me

Bob Ellison said...

Yes, traditionalguy. Back in the cave, we would say "ock" when the meat was tasty, and "ock ock" when it was delicious.

That got out of hand when we discovered salt and herbs. One guy said "Hey, ock ock ock ock ock ock ock ock ock ock!" about a particular curry dish, and we all agreed that enough was enough enough.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Very unique makes no sense in the same way that very pregnant
makes no sense.

In other words, they make sense to any competent user of the English language.

For example, every person, is unique, even identical twins. However, if a person was born with green skin ( and they were the only such person born ) then they would be different from everyone else in a way that stands out well beyond the usual uniqueness. Very unique captures this concept.

Henry said...

Nonsense begets more better nonsense.

Heller invokes the standard writing-school defense of craft:

If ambitious writers work at the boundaries of the written language (as they should), then they ought do it from a path of mastery, not ignorance; broken rules carry no power if writers and readers don’t notice the transgressions.

Well, actually, no. That last bit is defensive hand-waving, as Heller well knows. Writers (Faulkner or Suess, take your pick) aren't busily sorting through the holiday nut bowl for the best grammatical rules to crack. They are following an inner music. The sentences flow; the meatpicking comes later.

Heller has better defenses for grammatical precision, both of which appear above his limp final sentences.

Most interesting is the concept of grammar as style: the qualities that distinguish The New Yorker’s comma deployment from the Times’s. Most important is the concept of the written language as different than the spoken, and thus deserving its own rules: “Correct” usage is our translation tool.

Ann Althouse said...

"a more perfect Union…"

Mary Beth said...

Age and location of origin shouldn't keep one from figuring out what's a hella doughnut and what isn't. The boss will bring some and say, "these are wicked good" and then everyone's happy and everyone's learned something. With doughnuts.

Bob Ellison said...

"more perfect union"! Never thought of that! Great example.

Drago said...

I miss Norm Crosby.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnX-EPaAIdU

Classic.

pm317 said...

I have noticed that non-native English speakers attach 'very' unnecessarily to a lot of things (I do it but check myself most often).

gerry said...

What bugs me is a phrase like "One of my best friends" or "That is one of my favorite movies". A superlative is just that, isn't it?

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Henry said...

Heller invokes the standard writing-school defense of craft...

Seems rather off-topic in a case about 2nd amendment rights.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I read Althouse is because this blog is very unique.

Unlike, say, Instapundit. I read Instapundit because he is sorta unique.

Anonymous said...

Union #1 < Union #2 < Perfect Union
1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9...10


Union #2 is "more perfect" than Union #1, but still not perfect.

Mike said...

OK Bob. You're right on adverbial modifiers. I could even stomach "entirely unique" but draw the line on phrases meant to say "more" or "less" unique in general.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

pm317 said...

I have noticed that non-native English speakers attach 'very' unnecessarily to a lot of things

When my daughter was two she would include either probably or actually in just about every sentence.

Probably something she picked up from her mother. I actually thought it was kinda cute.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

If "very unique" makes no sense, is it wrong to say "very interesting"?

n.n said...

Unique is a relative reference measured in degrees separation. Is this a post about clumps of cells viewed from a diversity perspective? Up close, it's a black or white quota. Stepping back, it's a relatively unique human life.

n.n said...

Linguistics should be replaced with mathematics to overcome semantic ambiguity arising from the meaning of "is" and "urban" effects.

pm317 said...

Ignorance is Bliss said...

--------
LOL, I remember one time when I met a 'scientist' friend of my brother's, I kept saying 'actually' so many times, that I was mortified.. I was older than your daughter and it was not cute.

JackOfVA said...

Looked at in sufficient detail, no two complex objects can be identical.

The differences may not be discernible to the unaided eye, but differences exist.

As I understand quantum physics, all electrons, neutrons, etc. are identical, but once you start stacking them into more useful configurations, such as might be manufactured by machines, subtle differences exist.

Hence, we need a definition -- what degree of similarity must exist for two objects to be declared identical for a particular purpose. If I have two blocks of steel, each differing in dimension by 0.001 inches are they identical? If they are used as paperweights, arguably they are interchangeable and "identical" but if they are to be used as precision measurement blocks, that accuracy is woefully inadequate and they are most certainly not equal or interchangeable.

furious_a said...

"Unique" is binary. Something is either unique or it isn't.

EDH said...

What he's establishing is degree of uniqueatude.

Barry Dauphin said...

I would think that Pinker should have enough work in Cognitive Science to keep him very busy, and yet he continues to weigh in on stuff like this.

Sigivald said...

Pinker's usage sounds far better than Heller's.

("Another is the rule that “like” joins noun phrases, while “as” or “as if” is for verb phrases."

A rule I've never heard of and can see no difference of any meaning, between his two examples.

Want me to believe in a rule? Show me where it actually reduces ambiguity, rather than providing examples where it's interchangeable with no loss of clarity.

On topic, I think "very unique" is an awkward construction, but perfectly valid and comprehensible if used appropriately.

Uniqueness is not inherently purely binary, and seems as if it ought to be subject to degree; as in the example, two snowflakes are both unique and very similar.

"Very unique" helps differentiate something that is both as unique as a snowflake and not similar to other things.)

Ann Althouse said...

@t-man

A stickler would say that the right way to express that would be: a more nearly perfect union. Or: a union more closely approaching perfection. Or: a less imperfect union.

Be said...

Had a boss who used to say "No, no perfection here, as Perfection is only achieved at death. Try for Pretty Damn Good, instead."

On the surface, "more unique" is annoying. When one considers it along with "more perfect," the construction makes sense.

I sort of see this as a linguistic equivalent to the limits we used to calculate in math class back in High School.


***

One thing that absolutely grates on my nerves is Most Well Known. Wouldn't that be Best Known?

Ignorance is Bliss said...


A stickler would say that the right way to express that would be: a more nearly perfect union. Or: a union more closely approaching perfection. Or: a less imperfect union.

Yeah, but then it wouldn't fit the music.

Jupiter said...

The glorious thing about the “who” and “whom” distinction is that it’s simple.

Says whom?

Fernandinande said...

By the mid-19th century unique had developed a wider meaning, “not typical, unusual,” and it is in this wider sense that it is compared: The foliage on the late-blooming plants is more unique than that on the earlier varieties. The comparison of so-called absolutes in senses that are not absolute is standard in all varieties of speech and writing. See also a1, complete, perfect.
++

T.Aq.Mc. said...

I'd been thinking of the "more perfect union" example that our hostess brought up, but I don't think that's illustrates what one might think it does. E.g., if one union is imperfect, then a "more perfect" union is less one that is less imperfect. However the usage of "very perfect" would still be suspect, since perfection is a binary state and thus one perfect state is no more perfect than another.

In the accompanying article, there is an extensive discussion of the predicate nominative that no one really uses. We are brow beaten enough that some of us think that the 'object' of the verb to be should be nominative, so that "It is I." rings as the tony but strained response to "Who is it?". But if we try this in the plural I think few will be happy with "It is we." rather than "It is us." The the judges of what is right and wrong are us. (:

Language usage is a series of shibboleths that indicate the groupings to which one belongs or aspires. If you want to appear to belong to the class that uses New Yorker English, then using its rules is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Don't eat the yellow snowflake, no matter how much more unique it may be.

Revenant said...

Personally, I think Pinker has a point.

pm317 said...

I wonder how many of you have referred to 'On Writing Well' by William Zinsser. This book was recommended to me by my boss in my first job and I liked it a lot, especially in the way he shows you how to get clutter out in your writing.

Robert Cook said...

"Irregardless of what Pinker thinks...."

Haha! Another jape to annoy Mr. Pinker? I saw what you did there!

Paddy O said...

writing is all the same.

Robert Cook said...

"We can't distinguish degrees of uniqueness? That seems like a strange limitation."

No. "Unique" means one of a kind. Something is either one of a kind...or not.

One might say something is "almost unique" in place of "rare" (or "very rare"), but one cannot say "very unique."

Revenant said...

"Unique" is binary. Something is either unique or it isn't.

If you want to get pedantic, everything is unique and thus the word itself is meaningless.

Robert Cook said...

"People are all the same then, so what are we all arguing about with stuff in society? Our DNA is almost entirely alike. Nothing unique about anybody."

No, every human being that exists or has ever existed is unique, no matter how much we are all alike in so many aspects. Another you or me has never existed and will never exist.

Robert Cook said...

"A more perfect union" is artful--and artfulness is its own justification for grammatical rule-breaking--but it also well expresses the idea that there is no perfect union and there can never be a perfect union; the highest aspiration and only possibility is to approach perfection.

It's a more optimistic way of saying "less imperfect."

Robert Cook said...

Ah, I see a couple of others beat me to the punch on "a more perfect union."

Revenant said...

No. "Unique" means one of a kind. Something is either one of a kind...or not.

unique

5. not typical; unusual: She has a very unique smile.

The non-absolute meaning of "unique" has been in use for over a century and a half. You might as well try arguing that it is incorrect to use "gay" to mean "homosexual", since many homosexuals are grumpy.

cubanbob said...

Ignorance is Bliss said...
Very unique makes no sense in the same way that very pregnant
makes no sense.

In other words, they make sense to any competent user of the English language.

For example, every person, is unique, even identical twins. However, if a person was born with green skin ( and they were the only such person born ) then they would be different from everyone else in a way that stands out well beyond the usual uniqueness. Very unique captures this concept.

11/3/14, 11:32 AM

Uniquely unique? Very uniquely unique?

One of my 'pet' peeves is 'best regards'. I never knew there were levels of regards.

Robert Cook said...

Revenant: your example re: "more unique" simply points up that dictionaries will accede to grammatical errors once they become ubiquitous enough. I don't know that appearance in a dictionary is necessarily an indicator of correctness, so much as a notation of how words and phrases are used in the world.

(Is "ubiquitous enough" wrong? Isn't something either ubiquitous or not? Hmmm....)

Gabriel said...

If everything is unique, which is what we must conclude if we insist that "unique" is absolute and not relative, then any generalization becomes impossible.

You now cannot say "rock" or "table", because every rock and every table are unique. Even mass produced tables will have tiny flaws and blemishes, or a different history. Even two drops of water are "unique" in that they will not contain the same atoms, they will not be located in the same place, and they will not have experienced the same set of events.

The word "unique" is pointless then and without content. It only makes sense to have such a word if the meaning is "unique in some way", and once you admit that, than "unique" is not either/or.

tim in vermont said...

When we say "highly unusual" we picture a police detective, so "highly unusual" is out.

"Very unique" clanks on my ear, logical or no. It is true that it is filling a need so I guess I better get used to the original meaning being replaced by "absolutely unique."

Gabriel said...

Short version: Using "unique" as an absolute means that "kinds" cannot be said to exist--a "kind" must at least in one case refer to more than one object. Every oobject differs from every other in some way.

Todd said...

Mike said...
That is, a thing cannot be more or less unique. It either is or it isn't one-of-a-kind. Period. Weenies like Pinker seem to be confusing unique with special, and we already know the Elite Media think they are all kinds of special already.
11/3/14, 11:19 AM


As in "special snowflake"?

See what I did there?

Thank you, thank you. What, yes, I am here all week. Enjoy your meal and don't forget to tip your server.

Henry said...

The French for "unique" is "unique". The French have an academy, the Académie française, who act as the official authority on the French language. The English-speaking countries have no such equivalent.

So one would have to say that the French "unique" is more unique than the English "unique".

In English, people blather out all sorts of things and they assume meaning willy nilly.

Revenant said...

Revenant: your example re: "more unique" simply points up that dictionaries will accede to grammatical errors once they become ubiquitous enough.

Sorry, did you have a non-boring point you wanted to bring up? I dozed off during that one.

Anyway, like I was saying, "unique" has had the meaning of "unusual" for over a century. This means that people claiming the phrase "very unique" is bad usage are either:

(a) Writing from the 19th century, or

(b) Wrong.

Which are you? :)

Revenant said...

The word "unique" is pointless then and without content. It only makes sense to have such a word if the meaning is "unique in some way", and once you admit that, than "unique" is not either/or.

Nicely put.

jr565 said...

Unique has a couple of meanings:
limited to a single outcome or result; without alternative possibilities:
Certain types of problems have unique solutions.

not typical; unusual:
She has a very unique smile.

In the latter case, if it simply means unusual then it could be very unique, or somewhat unique. But if you take the first definition it makes less sense.

MadisonMan said...

However, if a person was born with green skin ( and they were the only such person born ) then they would be different from everyone else in a way that stands out well beyond the usual uniqueness. Very unique captures this concept.

So does unique.

If I can bring up another peeve of mine: Destroyed. It's hard to modify that -- partially, completely -- because Destroyed means there's nothing left. Completely destroyed is redundant.

I completely destroyed the very unique ATM machine.

jr565 said...

MadisonMan wrote:
If I can bring up another peeve of mine: Destroyed. It's hard to modify that -- partially, completely -- because Destroyed means there's nothing left. Completely destroyed is redundant.

and then there's decimate which many people use as "Destroyed". Even though it means to destroy 1 out of every 10 people. Or a great number.

Braveheart decimated longhsanks cavalry with the use of the long spear. However, after a few wins Longshanks destroyed William Wallace's army and kicked him upside the head for good measure.

tim in vermont said...

There is a rule of good writing that says that writing ought not draw attention to itself. It is probably better, if you are writing for a wide public, to use another formulation.

Whowhomnicks and their wannabees often fall afoul of this rule.

jr565 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kcom said...

Ah, I see a couple of others beat me to the punch on "a more perfect union."

They might have beat you to the punch but they didn't top your explanation. It was (very) well-said.

rhhardin said...

Very is commonly an intensifier.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

MadisonMan said...

So does unique.

No, it does not. Since every person is unique, saying the only green-skinned person is unique give us no additional information.

Dustin said...

Unique has meant one of a kind and it has meant 'unusual, but not one of a kind' for all of my life, and likely all of my grandparent's life.

This is one of those usage corrections that isn't intended to make language more easily understood, but simply an act of vanity by someone who wants to demonstrate their intelligence.

I do like it when unique is used as 'one of a kind', for example saying something is exceptional but not unique. And I do think very unique is like 'y'all' or dropping the oxford comma, and kinda unseemly. But it's totally understandable and valid.

grackle said...

One day long ago a caveman was scratching images on a cave wall. Along came another caveman who quickly scratched some smaller images underneath the first caveman's images. Thus was born the first blog post and blog comment.

jimbino said...


Who has a list of the English absolutes that can't be used with "more," "very" or "most"? Or with "less" or "least"?

Along the lines of:
unique
absolute
perfect
complete
ubiquitous
universal
exceptional
omniscient
omnipresent






MadisonMan said...

Of course you can use very unique if you want, just know that many people will be judging you when you do, and finding you wanting.

If you want to be thought of as not knowing the English language, have at it.

My suggestion for you, if you're contemplating bad English usage such as very unique to make some point of ne plus ultra-ness: Restructure your sentence so you don't have to.

Todd said...

I would think "first" would be on the list but I am no expert...

jimbino said...

Revenant's "ubiquitous enough" is in that class.





Ignorance is Bliss said...

MadisonMan said...

Of course you can use very unique if you want, just know that many people will be judging you when you do, and finding you wanting.

It's entirely fair that they will find me wanting, since I will be wanting to call them assholes.

Paddy O said...

"just know that many people will be judging you when you do, and finding you wanting."

Welcome to life. People judging doesn't make them right. They're still wrong and if they judge a person for using "very unique" they're still wrong. More than that, they're conceptually challenged in viewing language as only a binary exercise.

Likely racist too. And sexist. Because they can't distinguish anything more complex than broad categories of their own definitions

Francisco D said...

Ann,

President Lincoln had a special way with phrases. I will give him plenty of lee way.

...the better angels of our nature ...

... the last full measure of devotion ...

... mystic chords of memory...

His speeches still give me goose bumps.

Gabriel said...

I actually agree that "very unique" doesn't mean anything.

But nonetheless "unique" IS relative to the classification system you have adopted. Once you have decided which kinds you are going to group objects or events into, any objects which are the only instance of a kind are "unique".

If the relativity of uniqueness is what people are trying to say by "very unique", then "very unique" is a stupid way to say it.

All snowflakes are unique given that they have different arrangements of atoms. A five-fold symmetric snowflake would be unique given that all other snowflakes are six-fold symmetric. A heavy-water snowflake would be unique, even though it has the same symmetry, because all its hydrogen has been replaced by deuterium and that doesn't happen naturally.

So "unique" is relative, and once you've established the category, something is "unique" or not with no middle.

Carl Pham said...

I'm with the New Yorker guy. Grammar is great, a coolly reliable guide to which 4 of 86 ways of saying something can at least be tossed out right away as n00bish, lessening the cognitive load.

Pinker has always been a bit of a showboat. He can suck my....eggs!

tim maguire said...

Of course there are degrees to "unique." This is so obvious it's hard not laughing at the dime store pedants who insist that it is an absolute term.

In a world of dark brown horses, a light brown horse is unique. In a world of horse-drawn carriages, an Apollo rocket is unique. Would anybody really argue that these two unique things are equally unique?

Bob Ellison said...

How difficult is it to have a word that means what it says? Must we re-define every word?

"Unique" is binary, as furious_a said above. C'mon, people. Don't be stupid. There's no "somewhat unique", no "a little bit unique", no "very unique". That's just stupid.

If you must re-define the word to mean something it never meant, then give us a new one. Maybe "bwaloob". Can I say "that's a bwaloob burrito" and mean it's actually a burrito unlike any other? Can you allow me that?

Man, this is stupid.

Alex said...

More Madison shennigans by Democrat public workers:

Madison, WI Postal Worker goes Postal on GOP

Garage Mahal goes YEEEEHAW!!!

Shanna said...

It's entirely fair that they will find me wanting, since I will be wanting to call them assholes.

Yes.

My standards answer to this sort of thing is 'language evolves' and that breaking the rules is fine so long as it serves the purpose of communicating a thought adequately, since that is the whole purpose. Thus, I love 'ya'll'. But I hate to hear the wrong verb tenses used.

MadisonMan said...

It's entirely fair that they will find me wanting, since I will be wanting to call them assholes.

Because you will be wanting to call them assholes, ( not since, which has a connotation of time. )

Helpfully,

MadisonMan, former Editor :)

MadisonMan said...

Madison, WI Postal Worker goes Postal on GOP

The postal worker in question was in Neenah. That's a far cry from Madison.

Smilin' Jack said...

"a more perfect Union…"

The Constitution was so poorly written that more than 200 years later people make careers out of arguing about what the fuck it even means. Not a good model for English usage.

n.n said...

A "more perfect union" refers to a process, not a state. "More" is an action, "perfect" is a qualifier, and "union" is its object. There is no evidence that the founders were blissfully ignorant of either language or reconciliation.

Wait a second. Are we on Candid Camera?

Ken B said...

Re sticklers and more perfect unions. Is this a 1789 stickler Ann is talking about?

The word perfect at that time meant complete or fully achieved, not faultless. So more perfect is perfect even for the most perfect stickler of 1789.

Bob Ellison said...

The Preamble to the US 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 defence, 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."

It's one medium-long sentence.

Not rocket science.

traditionalguy said...

Lone wolf postal workers going anti GOP Candidates' mailings is to public schools as FedEx and UPS are to Charter Schools.

traditionalguy said...

Someone already said it. Perfect simply means completed.

So more perfect means more completed. Like we more completed the once complete equal rights by adding Gay Marriage rights.

virgil xenophon said...

I'm always cracked up by a phrase New Orleanians seem to use almost to exclusion: "most probably." LOL!

virgil xenophon said...

But then there's "very probably" as well..

Ken B said...

Traditionalguy: Complete and completed are different words. You messed up the exact distinction under discussion. Better luck next time.

Michael K said...

Steven Pinker does this for a living. Whatever he says is OK with me, except "very unique."

traditionalguy said...

@Ken B... thanks for your help by completing a more perfect example of Pedantry

rcommal said...

It's a sign of degradation--is it not?--that we are now reduced to a debate between Heller and Pinker.

Eh, so, then, screw that it, say I.

gerry said...

@grackle at 3:25: Absolutely perfect.