Friday, September 26, 2008

'Unique' is unique; we should try to keep it so

What's wrong with this paragraph?

"The Pinnacle Knob tower is unique in several ways. First, very few fire towers remain in Kentucky, and Pinnacle Knob is one of the most remote. Secondly, it is one of the few built with a 14-foot-by-14-foot cabin which was large enough for the fire watcher to live in."

The tower is certainly unusual, or distinctive, but it is not unique -- because it is not one of a kind, as the paragraph itself makes clear by saying "very few," "one of" and "one of the few." And this paragraph (we'll keep the source to ourselves) doesn't commit the most common error, applying an adverb of degree ("very" or "extremely," as notes).

Such usage has become common, especially in broadcast journalism, which tends to be more reflective of evolution in language. Because languages must evolve to reflect changes in society, some say we shouldn't be concerned about this new definition. I disagree, for at least two reasons.

First, the root word of unique is uni, Latin for "one." A word is understood more deeply if its definition remains true to its roots. Internal conflicts are confusing and should be avoided.

Second, the English language has no other word for "unique." It is, well, unique. "One of a kind" means the same thing, but requires four words. Simplicity and clarity in language are virtues worth preserving.

So, let's keep "unique" unique.


Al Cross said...

My colleague Scoobie Ryan asks:

Could you do the same thing for "completely destroyed"?


William A. Powers said...

I agree.

Anonymous said...

Also, CNN reporters were complaining about arriving to work at "5 a.m. in the morning."


Al Cross said...

I heard that, too. The CNN folks on the weekend and many other broadcasters are also becoming more prone to use the proper-name-followed-by-pronoun construction, as in, "Joe Biden, he . . . "