Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Very Unique Post

Many know me to be a stickler for correct usage in language. For example, if you use "further" in reference to a physical distance, I will inform you that the word you wish to employ is "farther," but I'd be happy to discuss it further with you. If I ask you where John is and you tell me that "Him and Jack went to the store," I will cringe, mourn the loss of the nominative pronoun, and ask you to let me know when he and Jack get back.

Yeah, I'm that guy. I'm not proud of it. Recently I've tried to curtail my corrections to those instances that actually hinder understanding, as opposed to every case of impropriety. But my purpose in this brief post is different. Today, I aim my fire at the hyper-correcter.

You know these people. These are the ones who think that "me" can never be used in conjunction with another noun, and will chastise you for saying, "He gave a dollar to Sam and me." "Uh, I'm sorry, but it should be 'Sam and I,'" they'll say, the wattage of their condescending smile powered by the energy of their own sense of self-satisfaction. Next time that happens, you may politely inform them that since sentence calls for an object pronoun, "me" is correct; you can further enlighten them with the rule-of-thumb of dropping the conjoined noun and seeing how one would construct the sentence then: "'He gave a dollar to me.' Oh. I see."

Another example is on my mind at the moment. It may prove controversial, but I think it speaks to a deeper philosophical and theological truth.

"This is a very unique blog post."

Scoff McOvercorrecter would see that sentence and start having involuntary spasms. "Excuse me, but 'unique' means 'one-of-a-kind,' 'nothing like it,' so there's no way to qualify that: something is either unique or it isn't."

I think that's wrong. I think that's wrong in an important way.

Take the following number sequences:


Each of these sequences is unique in comparison to the others because no two sequences are exactly alike; they are different, unrepeated. And yet it would be perfectly sensible to say that the first sequence is "more unique" than the other two because it repeats no numbers within itself, whereas the second and third sequences repeat the number 2. The last two share a characteristic with each other that they don't share with the first, and yet they are truly unique despite that commonality.

Or say you had three golden retrievers in front of you. Each one is a different entity, and is unique in that sense; there is no other dog that is that dog. Yet one dog is considerably bigger than the other two and has a scar on its snout from a fight with a raccoon. All of the dogs are unique, but that one is more unique than the others; if it had six legs, it would be very unique among dogs.

When we use the phrase "more unique" or "very unique," we are recognizing that the thing we are describing 1) is an individual which belongs to a set (it's a species in a genus, for you Aristotelians), 2) shares many traits with other things in that set, but 3) that thing also has features which set it apart from that set. We are acknowledging the gradations of likeness and unlikeness between things.

The over-correcter would like to say that "unique" means "one-of-a-kind" in an absolute sense, but only God could properly be described in this way. God does not belong to a genus or species. God has no equal. And yet, God is still "like" other things in some ways; or rather, things are like God in some ways. Anything that exists has some relation to other things that exists. This is called "the analogy of being." It is because of the analogy of being that we can have any knowledge of God, or really, any abstract or conceptual knowledge of anything.

If anything were truly "absolutely unique," if no analogy could be made between it and anything else, you could not know it. You would have no mental categories in which to place it. You would have no way to describe or define it. After all, when someone asks you to describe something, what do they say: "What's it like?" That's asking for an analogy. Saying something is unique only prompts the question, "As compared to what?" If you take away the ability to compare (analogy), you then take away the ability to call something unique. It's a self-defeating proposition.

So, to conclude: if you're one of those people who say that you can't qualify "unique," like saying "very unique" or "more unique," the consequence of your position is that we can have no conceptual knowledge of anything, and no knowledge of God. Do you really want to say that? I doubt many people would take that position; if you did, you'd be very unique.

(There may well be a hole in this argument that a baby elephant could comfortably hide in, as I have not had a coursework in epistemology or metaphysics as of yet, and may be a little out of my depth, but it makes sense to me. Please do feel free to charitably point out any errors you spot.)


  1. You know which grammatical error really bothers me? "Fewer" v. "less". I really notice this in commercials for some reason...."fewer" goes with a number of things (like a measurement) and "less" goes with something you should measure. For example - "fewer gallons of gas" and "less gas", NOT "less gallons of gas".

    1. Yeah, that one really gets me. Consider, too, the "15 items or less" lane at the grocery store. Oy.

      Your opening question is a feature of common language that I find amusing: prefacing a statement by asking if the other party knows what's on your mind. It's something we all do, yet why? Unless you've told me before, or it's somehow self-evident, how could I possibly know which grammatical error really bothers you? Why do we do that? Who started it? Interesting, isn't it?

      Hope all is well with you!